Engineering Empathy

High performing engineering teams have deep empathy for their peers and users

Every high-performing team I have been on all share one thing in common: deep empathy.

In tech we oftentimes fall victim to the ever-changing trends of technology fashion. We learn new tools in the hope that it will make us more desirable to employers,. We practice architecture design in the hope that we will make more robust systems. We read programming books and follow tech blogs in the hope that we will stay up to date with yet even more trends. But what we don’t tend to focus on is how we can improve our understanding of the people that we work with.

The world thinks of Silicon Valley as a mystical place filled with visionaries and programming rockstars. The assumption is that if you lock enough coding geniuses in a room together, a mountain of money will spill from the room the next time you open the door. The reality is that Silicon Valley, like anywhere else, is comprised of people who are still figuring things out. People who have family troubles, career worries, financial issues, health concerns or deep insecurities. When developing software it’s usually the wetware, the people behind the screens and the people sitting and breathing next to you, that are the hard part not the code running a machine somewhere in the world.

Empathy is not something we focus on enough in our industry because its nuisanced. Engineers usually have no trouble diving into hard technical problems because technical problems are seen as measurable roadblocks to a feature or a product release. Our job descriptions tell us that we are supposed to focus on solving technical problems. Solving technical problems is allegedly what some of us went to school for. But at the end of the day the technical problem you have been solving is a small piece of the larger puzzle of building amazing things together and solving customer problems.

When we focus on applying more empathy to our daily work, magical things happen. With empathy, your engineering team can perform better because they know they can asking clarifying questions without looking stupid or have insightful debates because everyone understands that each teammate is trying to do their best for the sake of the team. With empathy you supercharge your team to move faster, have less bureaucracy and to be more in sync with priorities. Your team is more focused on customer needs as they have a deep understanding of customer pain points are better at anticipating new ones in future.

The collapse of projects are almost never caused by the wrong framework choice, performance issues or incorrect data structure usage. Projects fail because of people. The people on the project either didn’t understand the people they were working with or they didn’t understand their customers. The project failed because of a lack of empathy.

Slow down and think more on how you can introduce more empathy into our workflow. Your peers and customers will thank you for it.



Software Engineer at Pinterest and Founder at Hack Arizona (Past: Atlassian, Latitude, Braintree+Venmo, Cisco)

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Ian Tracey

Software Engineer at Pinterest and Founder at Hack Arizona (Past: Atlassian, Latitude, Braintree+Venmo, Cisco)