New is Better Than Old, right?

I’m part of the Rands Leadership Slack (it’s a wonderful place to belong to, even if you aren’t a software leader), and in the slack someone asked a question related to them being a new engineer (with lots of experience) who comes in with a “let’s change how we do things” attitude:

One thing I so far have seen (and heard of) countless time is a new person (usually very senior compared to most of the team) joining an organisation, with fresh eyes and lots of energy, and immediately starting to rewrite the world™. Existing code is all legacy and $new_shiny_paradigm is the way to go. And hey let me do an MVP, prove how good it is and gather leadership consensus to spend the time rewriting. Then most of the times they burn out during the rewrite, figure out why the fence was there, or get lots of emotional resistance from the teams they just told “your code is not good, let me fix it”, making it unlikely for anyone to win.

But on the other hand if something is clearly wrong, being the adult in the room™ and speaking up can be very important and have a lot of impact, so it seems like there is a tradeoff.

My question then would be: “What do you use to decide what battles to pick and where to not come in guns blazing?”

Rands Leadership Slack, January 27, 2022

If you’ve been in software for a while, you’ve been that person. If you’ve been a manager for a while, you’ve had to deal with that person. It’s not fun for either side, and often can land the new engineer in a situation where they’re placed in the out-group without realizing it.

Why? Trust.

I wrote a few days ago about boats, metaphorically of course, and I didn’t dive (heh) into it there but the key reason why we listen to people who are in the same boat as us is trust. That trust is borne out of shared experience, and you can’t short circuit that necessary ingredient for trust.

The new engineer has no shared experience. They have no time to have gained that shared experience or the trust that goes along with it, so why would anything they have to say be valuable?

Now, you and I both know objectively that they probably have valuable experience. But subjectively? Being in the moment and hearing them tout an improvement as if it is the best thing since sliced bread? That’s hard to stomach.

One strategy I like for dealing with this is to remember as a new leader that when I join a new organization or team, that I should be spending the vast majority of my time listening, learning, and understanding why things are the way they are right now. Without that understanding — that particularized understanding of the circumstances the team faced, there’s no way I can improve our situation. That phenomena has a lovely name and story behind it, called Chesterton’s Fence:

There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

G.K. Chesterton, “The Thing”

Leave a Reply