Critique: “Things I wish I learned in Engineering School”


A friend of mine recently pointed me to an interesting article by Rick Cattell, distinguished engineer at Sun microsystems. I had never heard of Rick but he sounds knowledgeable and had good insights to share in a couple of different areas: successful companies, technical innovation, successful products and career issues, all of which are like crack-cocaine to me because, well, I am very interested in these topics. My thoughts on some of these:

1. Rule 1: Almost all organizations try to do too many things

I’ve seen it happen, but I disagree here with the “Almost all” part. From the 5 or so companies I have worked at, only 2 were trying to do what I’d categorize as “too many things”. The rest were/are about right in my opinion. Sure, the resources were scarce (but aren’t they always – if they’re not you have a problem). Besides, if you don’t have enough things to do as a company, you probably need to reconsider whether you’re in the right business. On the other hand, if the number of projects is out of control and the engineering team is overworked, that probably is a sign that the product team needs to get it’s act together (prioritization/MVP is one of the key principles behind good product, after all).

2. Rule 2: 1% of leaders are responsible for most successes

True, but again I think the “1%” is just a hypothetical number used for effect, because I don’t see a “meaningful” study or analysis backing that number up. That said, I agree with the sentiment here. Good leaders are hard to find. In fact, in my opinion, a true leader is someone who encourages and stands by his team through thick and thin, is willing to face the worst if the shit hits the fan, and is happy to share credit when it is due. He truly cares about his team and people and realizes that people come first. He has the market and technical vision and knows how to mentor and guide his team to get there. I have come across a few leaders who meet all of these criteria, but the odds of finding someone with all of these qualities is slim.

3. Rule 4: A suboptimal decision is almost always better than none & The reverse problem (ready shoot aim) is rare.

This is a sign that either:

  • there are too many layers of management involved in making a decision (consensus oriented management, as Rick puts it), or
  • the culture is driven more by fear of what won’t happen if the company does not meet its goals (versus being driven by an excitement for what would happen if the company does meet its goals), or
  • the people on your team simply don’t have that killer instinct that few people are born with, or
  • The company doesn’t have (or reward or encourage) a ready-shoot-aim kind of culture, which is critical if you want to be a force in today’s hyper-competitive market

It could also be a combination of these that’s making your organization drag its feet.

In general, I believe that getting out there fast (and with a product that is good, but not perfect), is far better than waiting for months getting a perfect product out there.

4. Rule 5: Trust in an organization is inversely proportional to distance

True. Which is why companies like Facebook are proactive in adopting “open” environments and “flatter” organizations. Trust evaporates with every new layer you add. It’s important that your people feel empowered to share things with you that they wouldn’t otherwise share if you were “too far up the chain of command”. One way for a leader to foster that kind of culture is to put himself “in the trenches” with his team.

5. Rule 7: Engineers follow the leader

Doesn’t everybody?!

Also true – the “leader” doesn’t necessarily have to be on the org chart.

6. Taylor’s law: You need more pigs than chickens

It all comes down to a sense of ownership. In my experience, actual ownership typically doesn’t matter as much as does “the feeling” of ownership. So yes, ”skin in the game” promotes success. In general, you want to engender a culture of competition and collaboration, and a feeling of “owning this together” versus a “not my fault this happened” culture.

7. Lampson’s Law: Most research and startups will not succeed, and Joy’s Law: Innovation will happen elsewhere

These are obvious imo, and don’t need to be elaborated on.

8. Rule 29: You have to sell your ideas

True, because we’re all marketers now. When it comes to projects that see the light of day versus those that don’t, selling your ideas is an important part of the equation. It’s a bitter pill that needs to be swallowed, especially by individuals and groups within the company that feel that they “shouldn’t have to sell their ideas” to see them on the roadmap. Simply not true.

9. Rule 41: Know your customer

This should be rule #1 imo. Winners do eat their own dogfood. One of the things I learned from reading books on the #leanstartup, is to focus on insights versus results. It is far more valuable to know why a customer bought something (because you can then repeat what you did or didn’t do) versus having 2 customers buy something but not know why. One of the core things I believe in isABT = Always Be Testing (ideas, code, copy, banners, promos, ads)

10. Rule 42: Being first is more important than being best

This goes hand-in-hand with Rule 4: A suboptimal decision is almost always better than none & The reverse problem (ready shoot aim) is rare.

Also true that the most popular product or technology is often not the best.

11. Kannegaard’s law: Physics overcomes fine print

You certainly cannot change natural tendencies, but you can build your products and incentives to take advantage of those natural tendencies.

12. Prioritize tasks every day, every week and every year

Because if you don’t, you’re not going to be focusing on your most important issues, and you could be going down the rabbit hole of working on something that does not matter, or can be outsourced, so you can focus on the things that do matter that you are uniquely qualified for.

13. Rule 64: Don’t get too good at what you don’t like doing

Commit this cardinal sin and you’re doomed to a professional life of unhappiness. This goes hand in hand with:

  • Being able to say no to work which you can do but would rather not do,
  • Making sure you’re good at the work you DO want to do and want to be known for.



About Kunal Punjabi

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by Kunal Punjabi
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