Category Archives: Unwritten Laws

Rule #20: Ask for opinions

Unwritten Rule of Engineering #20: Cultivate the habit of seeking other people’s opinions and recommendations.

You cannot hope to know all you must about your field and your employer’s business. Therefore, you must ask for help from others; routinely seek out those who are “in the know.”

This cannot be emphasized enough and is an especially frequent flaw in newer engineers who believe they know everything. Typically they do not understand the larger context and thus make locally optimal but globally sub-optimal decisions; decisions that could have been avoided if they had asked for advice from others.

Rule #19: Be inclusive

Unwritten Rule of Engineering #19: In all transactions be careful to “deal in” everyone who has a right to be in.

It is all too easy to overlook the interests of a department or individual who does not happen to be represented, or in mind, when a significant step is taken. Even when it does no apparent harm, most people do not like to be left out when they have a stake in the matter, and the effect upon morale may be serious.

Note particularly in this and the preceding rule the chief offense lies in the invasion of someone else’s territory without that person’s knowledge or consent. You may find it expedient on occasion to do parts of other people’s jobs in order to get your own work done, but you should first give them a fair chance to deliver on their own or else agree to have you take over. If you must offend in this respect, at least you should realize that you are being offensive.

Rule #18: Don’t do an end run

Unwritten Rule of Engineering #18: Never invade the domain of any other department without the knowledge and consent of the manager in charge.

This is a common offense, which causes no end of trouble. Exceptions will occur in respect to minor details, but the rule applies particularly to:

  • The employment of a subordinate. …
  • Engaging the time or committing the services of someone from a different department or division for some particular project or trip. …
  • Dealings with customers or outsiders, with particular reference to making promises or commitments involving another department. …
  • Performing any function assigned to another department or individual. …

There is significant commentary on this last principle that should also be observed: in general you will get no credit or thanks for doing the other person’s job at the expense of your own.

Rule #17: Think for yourself

Unwritten Rule of Engineering #17: Do not be too anxious to defer to or embrace your manager’s instructions.

This is the other side of the matter covered by the preceding rule. An undue subservience or deference to any manager’s wishes is fairly common among young engineers. Employees with this kind of philosophy may:

  • plague their managers incessantly for minute directions and approvals,
  • surrender all initiative and depend on their supervisor to do all the thinking for a project,
  • persist with a design or a project even after new evidence has proven the original plan to be infeasible.

In general, a program laid down by the department, the project leader, or the design team is a proposal, rather than an edict.

Rule #16: Do as you promised

Unwritten Rule of Engineering #16: Whenever you are asked by your manager to do something, you are expected to do exactly that.

Whenever your supervisor sends you off to perform a specific task, you have two possible responses: (1) you do it exactly as requested, or (2) you come back and talk it over some more. (Take special note of this law, for it applies not only as regards your supervisor, but also to anyone with whom you have agreed on a task to be done or a course of action to be taken.) It is simply unacceptable either not to do it, or to do something different instead.

Of course, a good manager will define the boundaries of the task as loosely as possible to achieve the desired results. If your manager creates too many overly detailed constraints, perhaps you should work at New Relic instead.

Rule #14: Choose your boss carefully

Unwritten Rule of Engineering #14: Be as particular as you can in the selection of your supervisor.

Long before the days of universities and [the internet], master craftsmen absorbed their skills by apprenticing to master craftsmen. Likewise, you will do well to use those with more experience, especially a well-selected supervisor, as your … mentor.

And a little quote from rule #13:

As a rule, you can service all other ends to best advantage by assuming your supervisor is approximately the right person for that job.

Rule #12: Infoflow up

Unwritten Rule of Engineering #12: One of the first things you owe your supervisor is to keep him or her informed of all significant developments.

Bear in mind that your manager is constantly called upon to account for, defend, and explain your activities to others, as well as to coordinate these activities into a larger plan. Compel yourself to provide all the information that is needed for these purposes. … No manager [likes] being surprised …

Rule #11: Know your domain

Unwritten Rule of Engineering #11: Every manager must know what goes on in his or her domain.

This principle is so elementary and fundamental as to be axiomatic. It follows very obviously that a manager cannot possibly manage a department successfully without knowing what’s going on in it. This applies as well to project managers with specific responsibilities but without direct subordinates as it does to department heads.

Rule #10: Be accurate

Unwritten Rule of Engineering #10: Be extremely careful of the accuracy of your statements.

This seems almost trite, and yet many engineers lose the confidence of their superiors and associates by habitually guessing when they do not know the answer to a direct question. … If you are not certain, indicate the exact degree of certainty or approximation upon which your answer is based. A reputation for dependability and reliability can be one of your most valuable assets.

Rule #9: Be concise

Unwritten Rule of Engineering #9: Strive for conciseness and clarity in oral or written reports.

The trick is convey the maximum of significant information in the minimum time, a valuable asset to anyone. … Start at the beginning, with the most important fact, the one the audience must know before learning more. Often this is the conclusion itself. Progressively broaden the pyramid by constructing each sentence upon its predecessor.

One of my favorite sources on how to present more effectively is Presentation Zen; another is any book by Edward Tufte.