Picking Your Battles

Posted in Engineering, Management, Work

Pick your battles.

It’s a simple and downright cliche piece of advice. At its heart it’s about prioritizing conflicts, and looking to resolve only the most important, the most impactful ones. Frankly it’s hard to argue that this isn’t the right thing to do all the time.

But it’s a saying that I find myself revisiting, particularly with interns and new grads and once in a while a senior engineer who should know better. Often it’s within the context of a technical debate, where the technically superior argument ought to win the fight but the layers that’d lead to the conclusion are murky at best and unknowable at worst. The generalist approach versus the optimized instance. One specific algorithm against another. Containers or classes.

And they want so much to always be right. With that attitude, though, are many subtle downsides:

  1. They tend to alienate their peers over time, as reputation spreads that they’re “hard to work with”. There are times and places where a closeted genius is useful, but a collaborative genius is much more valuable.
  2. Relatedly, their expertise is left untapped as their peers no longer include them in engineering designs, knowing that they run the risk of adding yet another strong opinion to the table.
  3. They can burn out. Fighting every battle is already tiring and stressful work, but if they win the debate and are then tasked with building it, they’ve made an emotional investment into the project and will likely either overinvest or overcommit (to show everybody that they were indeed right). Eventually, if the system is important enough, they may become its single point of failure.
  4. They escalate the stakes of being wrong. If their reputation hinges on technical perfection, it’d only take one slip-up destroy credibility.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for constant wishy-washy indifference: it’s natural to have opinions and to fight for them when it seems like things are heading in the wrong direction. It’s not quite “strong opinion, weakly held” either; they’re not looking for some crucial piece of counter-evidence that would reverse their thinking.

It’s more “agreeing to disagree”, explicitly or in their head, and either withdrawing from the debate or never starting one in the first place.

It’s fighting against that instinct to correct that error, even if it’ll be annoying them for weeks afterward.

It’s the way to relate and empathize, and build rapport so that when it comes the truly important decision, they’re able to cash in all that goodwill to swing it in their direction.

It’s recognizing that people and teams and systems and work are continuums, and that the when is just as important as the why.