When we hire talent at Modus Create, we recognize that we employ the entire person. That’s why we believe in investing in soft skills as a way to create a flourishing company culture.
Having been a part of many teams over two decades, I was able to identify 5 key characteristics of a star engineer everyone wants on their side. They are simple enough for anyone to learn and exercise, even in geographically and timezone shifted distributed teams.
Ultimately, these 5 characteristics are shared with the best performing and highest paid engineers.
I call them CATER:
Always be positive
A traveler passed through a forest when he met a group of people. He asked a man what he was doing. Without pausing his work, the man said: “I’m cutting stones.” The traveler moved toward another man and asked the same question. “I’m a stonecutter making a living,” – the second man responded. “Thank you,” the traveler replied, walked to the third worker, and asked the same question. This one answered proudly: “I’m a mason and I’m building a cathedral”.
When we pick a task to work on, we commit to complete it to the best of our abilities. If you’re like the mason from the story above, your work contributes to a cause.
Great developers don’t build a feature, nor do they build an app. They build a solution to a problem that makes the world a better place. The small piece of work these engineers genuinely commit to is an integral part of said solution.
Because star developers believe they are building something bigger than themselves, their work will have their signature on it.
Commitment is an opportunity to show what we are made of. The end-users, stakeholders, and peers will recognize the versatility you demonstrate in your work when you display an out-of-the-box level of thinking. What are all the ways users will consume the feature you’re developing? Consider the opposites and alternatives. Also, plan for performance budgets and energy impact.
Remember that you are the Subject Matter Expert (SME). The task or a backlog item you just committed to is the business case. The technical implementation is on you.
While developing a feature, you might run into inconsistencies that need fixing. Don’t turn a blind eye. Report complex issues and fix those that require a small effort. At Modus, we like to follow the three musketeers mantra: all for one and one for all. Where product managers focus on building the right things, engineers focus on building things right.
Commitment is about reliability. You are responsible for doing the work that you or the others will use as the foundation for future achievements.
Don’t forget about another vital aspect of commitment, which is time. Take the time you need, but don’t lose the sense of it. Being on time, especially to meetings, it’s a way you pay respect to your team.
Committing to anything is far more comfortable when the environment is enjoyable. The only way to maintain such an environment is encapsulated in the A of CATER: Always be positive.
Always be Positive
There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so – William Shakespeare
I enjoy reading Pull Request comments from the Open Source teams like React, Vue, Ionic, or Microsoft. These comments almost always follow the same pattern:
- Ask questions instead of making statements
- Are educational
- Are clear
- Show respect
Let’s consider the following example:
This piece of code will break authentication. You need to refactor it.
Compare that comment to the following:
Interesting point, great thinking! How would this logic impact unauthorized users in retrospect to the one-time payment feature #31?
No matter how certain we are in our judgment, we shouldn’t force it on our peers. Open-ended questions are an excellent tool for creating a constructive conversation. They also show respect. Consider pairing them with positive reinforcement for an added bonus. Reward the effort your teammate has taken to contribute to the mutual goal.
Exchanging opinion using the approach mentioned above applies to any communication, written or verbal. When you talk with your teammates, you have another Jedi skill you can use to enforce a positive environment. We were all born with it, but we happen to forget to use it. I’m talking about wearing a smile, of course.
Neuroscientists say that there’s more information in a smile than in a frown. Customer support representatives are trained to smile when answering calls. You may not see the person, but a smile travels through the phone. How important can that be, even to distributed teams!
A smile creates a reciprocal reflex. When you see a baby smile at you, you will almost certainly smile back no matter how difficult the day had been. It’s contagious. Wear a smile and let it spread to your team.
A positive environment is an environment of trust. Transparency is an essential ingredient for establishing and maintaining trust.
Imagine you’re on a team with Peter and Janice. Peter has been struggling with a feature that turned out to be much more complex than estimated. During the daily team meeting (DSU), Peter reports that he’s making great progress, and he would push a larger commit to the repository the next day. He was embarrassed to admit difficulties, fearing the team would think less of him.
Janice is also having issues. At the DSU, she said: “I’m struggling with my feature, and I need help. I committed my progress for everyone to see. Who on this team has the experience or time to help me?”
Who would you prefer to team up with, Peter or Janice? Which one is trying to protect the team?
Janice did two things that matter:
- She clearly states that the mutual goal of the entire team is at stake
- Janice’s code is checked in to the repo regularly and made available to the rest of the team
The truth is, we all fail sometimes, and more often than not, we need to learn new skills to get the job done. First, we need to admit that to ourselves, and then to the team. Vulnerability creates bonds that make the team stronger. It creates a sense of trust through transparency.
I’ve met countless Peters in my life, and I know one thing – Peter is not malicious. He’s afraid of being looked down at. Should we replace Peter, though? No, we need to show some empathy and work to help Peter be successful.
I was an exchange student during my senior year of high school. Moving alone to another continent, new culture, and having to learn to think in another language was scary enough. Soccer is not my strong suit, but it was the most familiar sport available, so I joined the local team. During a game, I had an opportunity to score, but my shot was horribly misplaced. What happened next came as a surprise that I remembered to this day. Instead of condemning me for missing a good chance, the captain of our team, Ruby, grabbed my shoulder and said: “This was a great try! You just got unlucky. Next time you’ll score, I know it”. That feeling of trust and acceptance was like jet fuel that pushed me to run, play, and try harder than ever before.
It takes character and self control to be understanding and forgiving. At the age of 17, Ruby knew that all too well.
Dealing with humans is not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion motivated by pride and vanity. Give them what they want, and they will reward you with effort and commitment.
Empathy is a way of understanding feelings and stimulating positive emotions. It’s also a way to show respect.
I had the luxury to team up with Lenny and Charlie on a great project with relaxed deadlines. Lenny was an extremely talented young developer straight out of college, and Charlie was an experienced senior engineer. We knew that Lenny was suffering from a medical condition that required an individual approach in communication and some working hours flexibility. Everyone on the team was eager to adjust just to help Lenny be successful. I was so proud of how the team stepped up for Lenny.
We expected a lot from Charlie, given his qualifications. It didn’t take more than a few days to realize that Charlie was not carrying his weight. He kept promising commits, but they never came through. Naturally, the team wanted Charlie out.
Charlie, just like Peter from the earlier story, failed to be transparent with the progress of his work. It created a loss of trust, which is a significant problem for healthy teamwork.
It’s not just Charlie who failed. The team was unable to show empathy.
I could have spoken to Charlie’s superiors and asked to replace him. How threatening would that be to the rest of the team! Instead, I decided to jump on a call with Charlie.
Being in a distributed team, we don’t get to see a lot of body language. Video calls are by far a better option than audio calls, so I made sure we both turned cameras on. I started the call with the usual ice breakers since I want to make sure that Charlie felt relaxed. Active listening is the best ice breaker, which is why I made sure Charlie told me a bit more about himself. Then came the crucial bit of information. Charlie was a new father with a three months old baby.
To Charlie, this information didn’t carry much significance for his workplace. However, it meant everything when it comes to helping people be successful.
It was time for me to give candid feedback. I explained that we were a high performing team that expected equal commitment from every member. Using a confident but calm tone, I told Charlie how I believed he was an excellent match for the team, but his contributions were not meeting the expectations. Then I made sure I pinpointed what the expectations were and exactly why I felt Charlie did not meet them. I was radically candid.
Accepting critique is difficult. We all want to feel important. The greatness of our Ego is under attack. At this particular moment, I flipped the focus back to Charlie.
“Charlie, I understand your life has taken major turns recently, and you are still figuring things out. You have all the reasons to celebrate. What can we, as a team, do to help you be more successful on the project?”
With control given back to Charlie, he felt respected and supported. Charlie agreed to alter his schedule and improve how he communicated with the rest of the team. It wasn’t just a promise, Charlie delivered.
Considered the alternative: Charlie could have been transferred to another team, or even let go. It’s a lose-lose scenario.
By enforcing radical candor, we protected Charlie and the team by offering valuable feedback respectfully and politely, powered by empathy and transparency. Not saying anything is not being polite, contrary to our social instincts. Giving honest feedback, no matter how uncomfortable it may seem, is paving the way to success for the entire team.
Another interesting fact was that the team readily adjusted the expectations from Lenny because we knew why.
Instead of condemning people, let’s try to understand them. Let’s try to figure out why they do what they do. That’s a lot more profitable and intriguing.
Cater to your Team
No matter how great an engineer you are, it’s the soft skills that make you a star. CATER is a set of patterns that are easy to learn and apply to any team – co-located or distributed. A team where CATERing is followed is nothing short of a dream team capable of creating the best products in the world.
I work hard on improving my CATER skills every day. The results are visible in my professional and personal life. I invite you to join me on the quest to create better products in environments that are enjoyable, fun, and productive.