Vulnerability: A Source of Strength for Engineers

Becoming a Better Engineer — Part 4

Adrian Hornsby
The Cloud Architect

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Disclaimer: The character of James is fictional and was created for illustrative purposes. Any resemblance to actual persons or events is purely coincidental.

When James, an engineer at a tech company, was asked to lead a project designing a new product feature, he was thrilled but anxious. James hoped for a promotion, and he saw this project as a way to prove his expertise and be recognized as a leading engineer in the company.

Wanting to appear fully capable, James worked long hours trying to solve all the problems himself. He thought asking for help would undermine perceptions of his competency. James believed that adopting a strong, self-reliant attitude was necessary to be seen as an expert worthy of promotion. James didn’t collaborate with his team members and dismissed input from others. He was determined to single-handedly develop an excellent design.

However, when James finally presented the solution he had come up with, it had major flaws. But instead of being receptive to feedback and help offered by the team to fix the issues, James stubbornly defended his flawed design. He was afraid that admitting he didn’t know how to solve the problems would be seen as weakness by his manager.

James’ unwillingness to admit his shortcomings and collaborate resulted in delays in launching the new feature. It also damaged working relationships with his team members.

While James thought appearing strong and independent would help his promotion, in reality his reluctance to admit what he didn’t know only undermined perceptions of his leadership capabilities. His self-focused approach caused a painful setback rather than demonstrating that he was ready for advancement.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is.

This common situation shows how our fear of being vulnerable often stops us from asking for help and working together. This always ends up limiting what we can accomplish.

In this blog post, we’ll explore why we tend to let vulnerability hold us back and discuss ways to confront and overcome these feelings.

The Power of Admitting “I Don’t Know”

Engineering is often viewed as a profession of certainty and perfection. Engineers are expected to have all the answers and provide fail-proof solutions. However, the reality is that engineering is an imperfect, vulnerable process filled with unknowns.

When an engineer can admit “I don’t know” instead of faking expertise, it demonstrates honesty.

In his book Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, Simon Sinek argues that leaders who are willing to be vulnerable and share their weaknesses and struggles can create a sense of safety and trust within their teams.

Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t

Engineering teams often need to collaborate and pull together to solve complex problems. An engineer who is open about their own weaknesses and struggles promotes psychological safety in their team.

When engineers feel others in their team are human and fallible like anyone else, they feel more comfortable taking interpersonal risks like asking questions, seeking help, and offering ideas. They also feel more willing to admit when they’re stuck or have made a mistake, enabling the team to solve issues quicker and fostering a growth mindset.

Turning Unknowns into Growth Opportunities

Admitting what we don’t know yet is the first step toward growth.

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck discusses the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence and talents are static, while those with a growth mindset believe that abilities can be developed over time with effort and persistence.

Dweck argues that the growth mindset leads to greater achievement and fulfillment. By praising effort rather than intelligence, embracing challenges rather than avoiding them, and persisting through setbacks, we can adopt a growth mindset. This mindset allows people to reach their full potential and continuously expand their abilities. The growth mindset creates a passion for learning and resilience that allows people to thrive even in challenging circumstances.

Adopting a growth mindset starts with vulnerability and admitting what we don’t know. Having a growth mindset requires being open to challenges, mistakes, and feedback — all things that make us feel vulnerable. To adopt this mindset, we have to be willing to admit we have more to learn.

People with a fixed mindset are more likely to want to seem smart and expert, so they avoid situations where they might be imperfect or make mistakes.

But admitting “I don’t know” opens us up to gain new skills and knowledge. It’s acknowledging that we have room to grow. Rather than seeing it as a personal failure, the growth mindset frames not knowing as an opportunity to learn something new. By embracing not yet knowing something, we create space to gain understanding.

Starting from “I don’t know” allows us to approach problems with curiosity and determination rather than insecurity. We have to be willing to be bad at something before we can get good at it. The passion for learning in the growth mindset develops through sitting in that vulnerable space of being a beginner.

Embracing vulnerability transforms workplaces into incubators for professional growth at all levels. When engineers have the courage to openly acknowledge their knowledge gaps, they can serve as role models of lifelong learning for others. Their humility helps shape an organizational culture that values asking questions and seeking feedback.

Vulnerable engineers who are transparent about wanting to gain new skills give permission to junior engineers to do the same. Their willingness to say “I don’t know yet” signals that it’s acceptable — even desirable — to be a beginner. Vulnerable engineers know their continued growth depends on bolstering others’ development too.

Embracing Imperfect Solutions Leads to Innovation

In engineering, ideas evolve through collaboration like a snowman takes shape with added layers. Initial solutions are a starting point, not a finished product. Just as a solitary snowball does not make a snowman, the core idea itself is incomplete.

To innovate, we must have the courage to be vulnerable about imperfections as we iterate. I often remind myself and the engineers I coach that openly acknowledging design constraints creates space for improvement, just as admitting a snowball’s flaws allows us to build it up into a snowman.

Rather than covering up limitations, we need to transparently say, “This isn’t there yet” so we can work together to add the necessary features. Through vulnerable collaboration, good ideas become great. We shape raw solutions into their full potential by progressively refining and enhancing, like rolling more snow to fully form a snowman.

Innovative engineering requires humbly admitting an initial concept is not perfect so others can provide perspective and add new dimensions. Just as snowmen take teamwork, our best ideas emerge when we are mutually invested in elevating a rough draft to its full potential.

Being vulnerable about flaws is the first step.

Everyday vulnerability for engineers

  1. Admit when you don’t know something rather than pretending to know.
  2. Ask for help when you are struggling with a problem.
  3. Admit mistakes openly and share lessons learned.
  4. Give and receive feedback gracefully, without getting defensive.
  5. Share when you have failed or struggled with a project.
  6. Openly acknowledge gaps in our skills or knowledge.
  7. Ask others for input to improve your ideas.
  8. Share your learning process, not just successes.
  9. Avoid attaching your ego to your work.
  10. Have the courage to try new things and risk failure.

Wrapping up!

The best engineers know that vulnerability is not a weakness, but rather a source of strength. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston and author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, emphasizes that vulnerability is not weakness, but rather that

“Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.”

That’s all for this part folks. I hope you have enjoyed this post. Please don’t hesitate to give me feedback, share your opinion, or simply clap your hands.

Adrian

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Adrian Hornsby
The Cloud Architect

Principal System Dev Engineer @ AWS ☁️ I break stuff .. mostly. Opinions here are my own.