Pillars of Impact for Web Engineers

☕️13 min read

This blog post about impact web engineers can have was intended to be a reply to a text message.

You might be reading this title and thinking wat. It's okay, so am I. Thing is, my friend and ex-coworker Iris asked me for some thoughts about "different ways web engineers can have impact, and how they can grow it over time", and I started writing an answer when I realized it would be way too long for iMessage. This is that answer. But before I answer, maybe I should build some credibility before?

Message from Iris
Message from Iris

Tejas why should I trust u

I've been "an engineer" since I was 8 years old. That's in quotes because, well, I wasn't a professional. Still, I wrote code from that age. Started with basic HTML, then CSS, then JavaScript, then TypeScript, then YAML, then SQL, GraphQL, HCL, you get the gist. It's been 21 years since my first line of code, and 10-ish since my first job. Since then, I've worked either full-time or contractually for Spotify, Vercel, G2i, and others, picking up things along the way. The jobs have been some mix of Individual Contributor (coding-heavy) roles, and managerial roles between companies.

Testimony from my former teammate, ever friend Mischa
Testimony from my former teammate, ever friend Mischa

The TL;DR is I've been both, a web engineer, and a web engineering manager for a significant portion of my life (I think 1/3). In this time, I've seen things and recognized patterns where engineers can have impact and grow it over time. So, here's

How I Think Web Engineers Can Have Impact and Grow it Over Time

The answer is nuanced and so abstract that I can't really think about it much without first isolating categories. Think of it as adding a few constraints in order to narrow scope, then formulating a more structured answer. The categories I'm using to narrow scope are categories that I consider important for general flourishing in a given human's life that are usually also backed by science and general wisdom. Each category is not a silo, and there is considerable overlap between them. Without further ado, here's how I think web engineers can have and grow impact.

1. Emotional Impact

Web engineers can (and often do) have emotional impact on their teams, managers, and companies at large. If you’ve ever asked for help and heard “just read the docs”, you’ve seen this kind of impact on its negative side. Conversely, if you frequently experience communication prefixed with “yes and” over “no, but”, you might see positive emotional impact from engineers.

In all of my years working either as an engineering manager or engineer, negative emotional impact is the number 1 reason I've seen people leave companies and experience burnout, while positive emotional impact allows teams to not only flourish, but consistently go the extra mile without experiencing burnout. This is also backed in science, with this 2018 study referencing burnout as emotional exhaustion from adverse working conditions, and this 2020 study on nurses working in long-term healthcare centers reporting that the optimism (or positive vibes) among nurses modulated their occupational health (in other words, prevented burnout).

With these facts, I consider this not just a pillar of impact, but the pillar of impact that is foundational to the skill set of any web engineer because we work in teams, and partially due to the fact that as long as people care, there is always an emotional impact–even if we don't notice. It is the onus of a talented engineer to be aware that their thoughts, words, deeds, and motives have an emotional impact on those around them, and work to have a positive one.

How Can We Grow It?

Assuming we want to grow positive impact, I'd encourage practicing vulnerability. Human beings have evolved tremendous bullshit radars, and most of us can tell fake from a mile away. Even if awkward or uncomfortable, truth always wins over deceit. We usually are afraid to be authentic because we've been hurt or judged in the past for it. It's putting a fig leaf over our nakedness. We do it because it makes us feel safe while not recognizing that it's actually hurting us and the relationships around us.

I propose, through trial and error, even if it's awkward and painful, working out at an individual level what it would take to present the naked, beautiful truth–and do it. This will probably be different for everybody, but I truly believe it's worth it.

If we're looking for a resource that can help get started, my go-to is Brené Brown's incredible TED Talk on vulnerability.

A Personal Example from Me, A Web Engineer

  • Negative Impact: At one of my first jobs, a bug of mine was found in production. The engineer then proceeded to say

I can't believe we pay for this shitty Indian code. What a mistake hiring such a junior developer

I went home crying, and eventually burned out and quit.

  • Positive Impact: By being vulnerable and respectful, I was able create a team where we spoke freely and openly while creativity soared and people often said things like this. It was the best team I've ever been on to date.

My former team saying nice things about me lol
My former team saying nice things about me lol

This is not ego-stroking, but actual, measurable impact I had as a web engineer where people felt emotionally safe and well represented. Throughout my entire tenure there, nobody quit until I eventually did. Once I left, it wasn't long before others followed.

My whole goal is for you to be able to have a similar impact through the contents of this blog post.

2. Social Impact

As Sandra Ahlgrimm's Twitter bio says, we rise by lifting others. Human beings have evolved to be where we are today because we're social creatures. Thousands of years ago, isolation meant death: if you're not part of the group, you're left alone against the wolves. This hasn't changed. Humanity falls apart when people are excluded, with empirical evidence that exclusion creates nazis, terrorists, and people like Vladimir Putin.

Therefore, I'd consider this another import pillar of impact I'd expect web engineers (but also people in general lol) to pay attention to.

How Can We Grow It?

We rise by lifting others. Web engineers tend to be a relatively privileged echelon of society. Who are we lifting? Who can we lift? Who can we mentor? I'd suggest that if we want to grow our social impact, we keep our eyes and ears open–both inside our places of work, and outside using platforms like Tupu.io–for those we can lift with us either through mentoring, pair programming, or even something as simple as lending an ear (since we have two) and listening to understand over listening to respond. This can and does move mountains in the lives and careers of our peers.

A Personal Example from Me, A Web Engineer

  • As a Mentor: I mean, you see the stuff from Twitter above, but here's more:

A Chat with Shruti Balasa
A Chat with Shruti Balasa

Shruti asked me to mentor her and I agreed. Today, she's soaring in success and her joy is my joy. I take great joy in having as much positive social impact as I do, and I grew it by siezing every opportunity to serve people, starting with 1-10 people in like 2015, to many more worldwide today.

  • As a Mentee: Lee. Freaking. Johnson. Hands down the best manager I've ever had. He has an energy about him that is extremely relaxed, kind, patient, and servant-hearted; so much so, I used to feel so free I'd even call him on Saturday for marriage advice and he'd take the time to give me some.

I was his report at G2i, one of the best places I've worked. His mentorship, combined with the executive coaching G2i got me, would go on to have me grow in emotional intelligence and benefit every relationship I have: personally, and professionally.

I am convinced this is Lee's joy, as he rises by lifting others.

This is an important note. For social impact, I feel like the motivation has to be their growth and our joy. If we're not the kind of people who take joy in others' success, there may be more personal issues within us to work through in order for us to have a truly abundant human experience.

3. Creative Impact

Human beings are idea machines. If you start a database company, it's only a matter of time until someone has an idea to create a drag-and-drop CSV import because they can. How we deal with these ideas is the creative impact we can have as web engineers. While this is a technical topic, the process of having an expressing an idea is a creative one. Thus, I'm focusing on the creative aspect of impact here.

When people have ideas–creative ideas, maybe unexpected ideas out of left field–it's usually motivated by positive intent to help improve a given situation. Even bad ideas of harming other people are usually enacted to benefit the idea's author. Ideas, more often than not, are a means of intentionally wanting to improve a circumstance.

If a teammate shows up with a creative idea and it's met with suspicion, apprehensiveness, uncertainty, or doubt–this will often have an adverse impact and people will leave. Why? Because, at the root of it, an attempt to improve a circumstance is rejected. If a common occurrence, this sends people down a rabbit hole of "what's the point? There's no use sharing this", which will ultimately drive a negative emotional state that leads to pessimism, and eventually burnout. Do you see now why emotional impact was at the top of the list?

When ideas are met with receptiveness and open collaboration, beautiful things happen–like Vercel's beautiful landing page, React as a web framework, and Yeezys (okay, maybe subjective on beautiful). You get the idea.

How Can We Grow It

I feel like a lot of this just comes down to "be aware you have an impact". If you'd like to see people's creativity explode where they come up with some of the best and unexpectedly awesome stuff you've seen, trust them. Like Steve Jobs says in the video–trust them, let them see it through, and help them bring their vision to life.

With this, it's probably best to also exercise caution. When presented with ideas, I often find myself asking "what's the worst that will happen if we go through with this?", and the answer is usually "it won't be that bad, let's go with it". If someone's big idea is to intentionally drop your production database though, probably some apprehensiveness might be wise. I'm not sure much less warrants it.

A Personal Example from Me, A Web Engineer

  • I've worked at places where there's a committee and a 3-hour long discussion before any idea is implemented. I usually have not lasted very long at any of these companies. Obviously, names won't be named.

  • I work with Michael on software that directly benefits people living with my disease hemophilia. The software we create together gives people–especially parents of children with the disease a tremendous amout of hope and peace of mind. We collaborate and bounce ideas around occasionally, and every idea is usually met with a resounding "yes, and" and little to no doubt. If we have a bad idea (I once decided to use RDS for a tiny database; terrible idea, very overkill), we still do it, learn from it, and iterate. We embrace failure and controlled chaos to bring out the best in each other and our products, and for this, I've considered joining Michael full-time on multiple occasions and am always eager to continue due to the creativity afforded to me.

4. Technical Impact

Yes yes, this is at the bottom of the list because technology is usually binary and far simpler than human complex emotions and such. And also it's kind of obvious, no? Web engineers can have a technical impact? Of course, the degree of technical impact is what I find so fascinating.

You've got people like Sebastian Markbåge who seem like these wise sages who sit in the clouds and dream up powerful concurrent features that revolutionize UI rendering, and then you have the early-career 19 year old bootcamp grad whose impact is a company's landing page. Both impacts are not only meaningful, but complementary. Would Sebastian's concurrent features be useful if there was no demand for it from web engineers with lesser impact? Doubtful. It's a system where every cog is key.

How Can We Grow It

In my opinion, this is the easiest to grow out of these 4 pillars because it's a cycle of build break build break build break build break build break build break build break build break build break build break over time until you build and scale resilient systems that can then be modularized and used across virtually infinite parts of the web.

Jeremy Keith has an amazing talk about this kind of thing expressed as pace layers. I feel like (this isn't a proven fact) increasing technical impact is an inevitibility if there is enough desire. Unlike the phenomenon where people stay emotionally ignorant for an entire lifetime of experiencing emotion, if you write enough code and want it to get better, it usually will. Why? Because it's binary rules. Do it enough, and your technical impact will grow. This is also how mine has.

A Personal Example from Me, A Web Engineer

I've been writing code 1/3 of my life or more. Here's the journey:

Honestly, my whole life is incompetence-driven development and here we are. Today, I'm the director of developer relations at Xata with quite a bit of technical impact both in the workplace and out through various open source stuff.

Conclusion

This was long. I guess this is why this didn't fit on iMessage. Hi Iris, hope this is what you wanted. Appreciate you. Peace!

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Tejas has a special love for humans and code that sometimes finds its way onto this blog and other parts of the internet. Say hi on twitter!

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