Letter To The Best Engineer I've Worked With

June 23, 2014


My friend -

It’s been six months since I left. During this time more people have asked me whether you are available for hire than whether I am available for hire. To salve my bruised ego, I’m writing to tell you (a) how great I am, and (b) what I tell all of them: that you are the best engineer I’ve worked with (and fat chance).

On to the first thing. Scott Friend asked me the other day what I want to do with myself and what I think I’m good at. I met up with him a day after baking a batch of raspberry rugelach, and all I could think of was: I bake amazing rugelach. (It’s the sour cream dough, instead of cream cheese.) Scott, sensing my difficulty, helpfully volunteered that he thinks I’m good at distilling complex technical products down to brass tacks for non-technical audiences, without oversimplifying or overselling.

There’s a humblebrag waiting to happen here, but I’m going straight for the braggedy-brag: hotshit VC thinks I’m great at ‘splainin, and I am.

What’s really humbling is knowing that being great in this sense is not hard compared to lots of other things that make tech companies run (e.g., like what you do) - as long as one has a good handle on the subject matter. There lies the rub. In my first week, a potential customer asked me what video codec we used. In a reflexive burst of enthusiasm/panic I broke my own rule of saying “I don’t know” when I don’t know, and said: “….Flash?”

Ouch. It took me years to get from that walking disaster to warbling about h.264 vs. vp8, which ones which tech giants were pushing and for what nefarious ulterior motives, standards committees, why Flash is a giant turd that people keep polishing, the deux ex machina that is WebRTC and so on.

Some engineers are quick to dismiss sales/marketing types who don’t know what they’re talking about. Some put up with them. Some take the time to educate them so they don’t say (or promise) ridiculous things.

Jonathan sent me this video the other day, a clever satire of how business guys ruin everything. Look at Stuffed Shirt completely disregard what the engineer is saying! Look at Tight Hairbun spit out buzzwords like a nasty food-replacement smoothie! Just like real life, but funnier! Ha, ha!

I’m sympathetic to the troves of engineers that seem scarred by this problem (it’s almost as bad as the “too many recruiters are emailing me” problem so many of them struggle with every day) but I do want to point out that the business guy IRL is not having an awesome time either. I know this because before I learned to listen, I too would do bizarre salesperson kabuki when I was sweating bullets avoiding things I couldn’t answer. It sucks to be in a client meeting where you just don’t understand what they’re asking for and/or what your engineering team is saying is the reason they can’t deliver. It sucks to be under the gun for closing deals you have no idea how to close so you and the engineers who think you Ruin Everything get to keep their jobs this year. And yes, while the onus is on the business guy to learn this shit cold, it really doesn’t help when engineers think you’re an idiot. And when you probably are an idiot.

But we all start somewhere.

When I was a kid, I got in trouble one day for doing something stupid without checking with my dad, who was at work. I hadn’t wanted to bother him. Dad said: “You call me at work whenever you need to. I’m never going to be too busy to take a call from my kids. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small or big thing, or if I’m in the middle of something. If you have something for me, you call me and we’ll talk.” (For the record, my dad has never blown me off when I’ve called him at work. Although these days he blows me off when he’s out late-night karaoke partying with his friends. I don’t know what your parents are like now, but mine have more of a social life than I have.)

Anyway. I do have a point here; which is: you kind of remind me of my dad. That came out a lot creepier than I intended. What I mean is: you were busy all the time, but never too busy for me. If there was something I didn’t get, you’d find the time to make sure I got it. (By the way, the only time my dad fell short of explaining something to me as a child was when I asked him what a virgin was. Long pause: “It’s a kind of forest.”) When I think about everything I learned at TokBox, I think about you walking me through everything: no eye rolls, no exasperated sighs or impatient handwaves. I learned a whole lot from arguing with you because of your rules about keeping critique impersonal, never pulling the “I’m smarter than you” card, staying coolheaded and relying wholly on logic and data to prove a point. I picked a lot of fights with you, Badri, because it was the most goshdarn fun way to figure things out and make decisions.

I’ve written before about how the best thing about my time at TokBox was how much fun I had with the team. I know now that the leader sets the dynamic and tone of a team. So it follows that you and I have much to owe Mr. Small. Also, given that 90% of the team were engineers who would follow you into the jaws of hell (or the bowels of a giant telco, same difference. Ha! I’m joking. Of course I am.) I think it’s also fair to say that I got on swimmingly with the team because you and I got on like a house en el FUEGO! You rocked client meetings that we did together (you would never be as ineffectual as the hapless engineer in that video). You passed my airport test - multiple times, thanks United - with flying colors, and I hope I passed yours.

It’s said that behind every great person is another great person, and at the risk of sounding too forward, Bads: you complete me. You made me great. You are the Kanye to my Kim. There are plenty of smart cookies, visionary technologists, inspiring managers out there, but no one yet measures up to you on all those fronts and is as attuned to short-term trade-offs and long-term implications for the business. You are so spot-on at weighing how far you can push your team to deliver or when the right thing to do is to say no – and then so good at explaining why to me so I can explain it to customers.

What salesperson wouldn’t be great with a partner like you?

I know you’ve got a sweet gig now, but Badri, I will wait for you. If something new takes your fancy, I’ll be first in line to see if we can work shoulder to shoulder again, even though our shoulders are technically more than a foot apart. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small or big thing, or if I’m in the middle of something. If you have something for me, you call me and we’ll talk.

All my best -