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Engineers are Always the Smartest People in the Room

I was on a conference call a few weeks ago when our Project Manager mentioned that "engineers are always the smartest people in the room." He said it touch-in-cheek about a know-it-all engineer from another team. I’m sure you know the type. He thinks the business people are clueless, other engineers are neophytes, and management is full of engineers who couldn’t hack it technically.

Thankfully, the developer world is not completely full of arrogant engineers like the guy I just described. Ultimately I think this kind of perspective comes from not appreciating the wide range of skills and tasks necessary to successfully deliver useful software.

There’s no question that our work as engineers and developers can be immensely complex. However, that alone is not going to deliver real business value. Our myopic engineer doesn’t get that.

In the enterprise, building technically perfect software, if there even were such a thing, is meaningless without the expertise of product development, sales, customer service, logistics, management, and many other concerns. Engineering the software is fundamentally useless without the other concerns irrespective of task complexity.

Does it Matter?

Engineers may even be the "smartest" people in the room by some arbitrary metric like IQ. Does it matter? No. Not in the business world where we need to collaborate to deliver real business value. If you think it does matter, you’re better off finding a hackathon or some other contrived environment where you can measure your smarts against others.

However, good engineering skills are incredibly useful and valuable. There’s just a big difference in business value between arrogant engineers and humble ones.

Nobody wants to work with a jerk. Arrogant engineers put themselves at an immediate disadvantage when their colleagues naturally avoid having to deal with them. They drag down team morale. Likewise, team focus inevitably strays from delivering business value and turns towards avoiding the egomaniac whenever possible.

Time Sink

Arrogant engineers can also be a tremendous time sink for the team. How often have you seen engineers like this fight tooth and nail over meaningless technical minutiae? Far too often if you’ve been in the tech world for any length of time.

Code reviews are one of their favorite battlefields. The Smartest Guy in the Room loves to show his value by picking nits out of other developers’ code. “You used a plain old foreach loop instead of a Stream in a legacy codebase? What a fool you are!”

And so we waste huge amounts of time placating or avoiding the imperious one. He derails meetings to pore over irrelevant technical details that add no value. Ultimately, we spend less time delivering valuable business software and more time appeasing the malcontent.

Real Business Value

In the Enterprise Java World, real business value creation requires far more than engineering alone. On any reasonably large project we developers and engineers benefit immensely from our colleagues.

We need the product owner to provide direction on what to build. A good project manager can remove obstacles in our way and insure dependencies are delivered. Management can make sure we can focus on the project at hand and not have to deal with a barrage of other competing priority requests. The sales team delivers paying customers to the business without which everything collapses. Customer Service bridges gaps between what the software does and what its end users think it should do.

The list could go on and on. It’s easy to see how a myopic engineer misses the forest for the trees when viewing things in the global context.


I look forward to the day where project managers can no longer correctly opine that “the engineers are always the smartest people in the room.” This kind of engineer attitude is without question a significant detriment to the business and his team.

Even if it were true, it doesn’t matter in any meaningful sense. Engineers like this are a big time sink for his colleagues as they’re forced to deal with his misdirected priorities. Real business value results from the collaboration of many different concerns only one of which is engineering.

Further Reading

**Cross post from my blog: Engineers are Always the Smartest People in the Room

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