Finding the right engineers for the job

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The best engineers

"This project will be critical to our success. Let’s get our best software engineers on it…" Maybe you’ve heard something like this where you work. The question naturally arises, who are your “best” engineers?

When I first started my career, I believed that the best software engineer was one who rigorously applied the principles of good software engineering (SOLID) in a steady fashion to create something new. My thinking on this has shifted a bit. While I still very much believe in these principles, I now see them as a part of a larger picture.

The right engineers

A few years ago I attended a conference where I heard a talk from a company called CorgiBytes. They work as consultants specializing in improving and maintaining legacy code. To many software engineers, this would be the worst job imaginable. But the founders recognized that there is a special type of engineer who enjoys and even thrives on this kind of (often desperately needed) work. So they target hiring engineers with this specific strength.

CorgiBytes describes their members as, "the joyful janitors of your codebase." This quote is heartwarming to me. It reminds me that for every need, there exists a person who not only can do the job, but will derive their greatest satisfaction from doing it. What a wonderfully merciful thing that there is someone out there who will joyfully do the very thing you cannot stand doing.

True greatness, then, exists wherever a need meets a person perfectly suited to fulfill it.

The developer landscape

Okay, so if there are software engineers wired for legacy code projects, what other types of software engineers might exist? In his conference talk, the founder of CorgiBytes discussed the following model which he dubs the "developer landscape:"


Each quadrant in the model defines a particular type of developer. In the upper left hand corner you have your hacker-maker. This engineer is more concerned with "building the right thing" rather than "building the thing right." This person loves to crank out prototypes, experiment, and fail fast. In the upper right hand corner you have the craftsman-maker. This is your engineer who is more concerned with "building the thing right," rather than "building the right thing." This person wants to steadily apply the principles of SOLID. At the start of my career, I viewed this quadrant as the one strength that defined a good software engineer.

Below the x-axis are the code menders. The lower right hand corner represents the craftsman-mender. This is the type of engineer that CorgiBytes selects for. These engineers love to gut a nasty piece of code and replace it with something clear and maintainable. Finally, you have the hacker-mender in the lower left hand corner. These are the firefighters of your system. When a service is exploding or customers are in trouble, they parachute in and save the day. They are motivated by driving to a resolution quickly.

All of these strengths are needed in the context of a company like AppFolio that develops and maintains software services because each strength maps to a phase in the software lifecycle. Nothing truly new happens without the rapid prototyper, your system is quickly crippled by technical debt without your SOLID engineer, your codebase becomes legacy without your remodeler, and your services stop running without your firefighter.

Finding the right fit

In my first software engineering job, I worked in a context where the needs were almost solely SOLID and remodeler strengths. I enjoyed this work and I learned much. But I was unaware of the rapid prototyper and firefighting quadrants. I didn’t know they existed.

Things changed for me when I joined AppFolio. AppFolio’s organizational structure and focus on generalist teams suddenly exposed me to the entire developer landscape. I quickly learned that my real strength shines in the hacker quadrants. I can be quite happy in the craftsman quadrants, but I feel most alive in my work when I’m operating as a hacker. I wish I had learned this about myself sooner!

There is amazing power in finding the right fit for an engineer based on their strengths. I’ve been involved in several projects where we stacked the deck with "the best engineers," only to see these projects stagnate. We were evaluating whether an engineer was "the best" separate from the need they were intended to fulfill. Once we began asking, "which is the right type of engineer for this project?" we saw that different strengths were needed. When we made changes accordingly, we saw those projects come to life and succeed beyond what we even imagined.

Where do you fit?

What about you? Are you a great software engineer? As I said above, we have many opportunities at AppFolio for all of the developer types, as well as opportunities for developers who want to gain experience in new areas. Our organizational structure lends itself to exploration, and our journey as a company into new business verticals guarantees new adventures for many years to come. Come join us!