Senior Engineers: Simplify and add lightness

A former engineering manager once told me something that has stuck with me through my career more than anything else:

“The job of a senior engineer is to simplify”

That one simple sentence has done more for my growth as a software engineer than anything else.

He went on to explain how in general junior engineers add complications, mid level engineers tend to maintain the status quo, and so senior and above must reduce complexity.

Perfectly balanced, as all things should be

I love the term “simplify“, it’s universal

  • By simplifying code it becomes easier for other engineers to understand
  • By writing good documentation we can simplify the process of new engineers getting up to speed with a project
  • By simplifying processes we can give others more time to focus on the real work
  • By writing good commit messages and PR descriptions we can simplify code reviews
  • By pairing we can simplify a task
  • By mentoring more junior engineers we can simplify their levelling up process
  • We can even simplify others lives directly, eg: by taking something off their plate if they seem snowed under

You may at this point be thinking this is nothing new, I’ve just given a standard senior engineer job description, and while that is kind of true, it’s more about the framing - it’s not just what we do, but why we do it.

This nugget of wisdom was bestowed upon me during my first few months as a senior engineer, and if I’m honest with myself, I don’t think I fully deserved the title at the time. Sure I had the coding chops, but it was my first “proper” job after spending eight years working alone on my one-person SaaS business. I had some huge knowledge gaps when it came to soft skills.

I suspect I only got the job as senior engineer by virtue of my age and years of experience.

Having my job description distilled into that single short sentence really helped the role click for me, and allowed me to grow in to engineer I am today.

Hey look at that, by creating a simple job description, my manager simplified my career growth. Simplicity really is the gift that keeps on giving.

I hope that by passing this knowledge on I can help simplify the lives of some other newly senior engineers that are struggling with the title.

And maybe even some that aren’t so new to being a senior.

I’ve certainly worked with some seniors who seemed hell bent on making things more complicated. The cynic in me wonders if it’s a deliberate ploy - by introducing complex code and obtuse practices, they become the gatekeeper, making themselves appear all-knowing and indispensable.

However, the realist in me knows those engineers probably aren’t scheming their way to job security, they’re just unlucky. I feel very fortunate to have had the ephemeral senior title explained to me so succinctly. Especially as I was so new to it.

Simplicity should be a goal no matter what we do in life. Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus Cars said it best:

“Simplify, and add lightness”

Note: While this quotation is generally attributed to Colin Chapman, there is some debate about the exact wording, and whether he was even the first to say it

I love this phrasing. “Simplify” comes first, that’s the primary goal. And “add lightness” has a beautiful juxtaposition to it - to make something lighter you generally take things away. The concept of adding lightness almost sounds wrong, but still somehow makes sense.

The ol’ impostor syndrome still rears its ugly head from time to time, but most days I feel I’m good at my job. And that’s because I’m not trying to be a senior engineer, I’m just trying to simplify.

– Matt