Voicing Your Opinions as An Engineer

Voicing Your Opinions as An Engineer

I notice a common trait among senior engineers: in most cases, they all have opinions and are not afraid of sharing them. As I gradually take on bigger and bigger responsibilities, when the stakes are high, I start to struggle with voicing my opinions and taking a stand.

It’s a common topic mid-level engineers often encounter.

This post covers:

  • why we should voice our opinions;
  • what is stopping us from voicing our opinions;
  • when and how to voice our opinions.

Why we should voice our opinions

1. It makes you more engaged in a discussion.
Voicing our opinions is a great way to participate in a discussion. Watching a sports game is a good analogy. If you were indifferent to the playing teams, you won’t pay much attention and won’t be able to enjoy it as much as others who have preferences. But if you were affiliated with one of the teams in any sense—it can be as remote as your friends support one of them—the game becomes a lot more personal and you are more engaged.

Similarly, when we voice our opinions, we are taking a stand. No matter how strong or weak the stand is, we will naturally pay more attention to the discussion because our skin is in the game.

2. It helps us learn faster.
The more we participate in a discussion, the more we get the most out of a discussion. Since voicing our opinions help us participate in a discussion, it helps us learn from it.

Besides that, we learn the most when we discover we were wrong. Voicing our opinions also allows our teammates to examine our reasonings. That helps us uncover any mistakes or overlooks in our reasonings.

3. It wins us respect.
No matter if we are right or not, standing up for our opinions wins us respect. When we are not afraid to stand up for our opinions, it shows that, instead of mindlessly following, we care enough to have an opinion and stand up for them. That means a lot.

I have had many heated discussions. Each time, no matter what the outcome was, I felt that I bonded with other engineers through the discussion, and we won respect from each other.

When someone is not afraid to voice their opinions, it’s a sign that they can be entrusted with great tasks in the future.

4. It’s how we start to become leaders.
Becoming a leader is about taking the driver’s seat. When we are not afraid to voice opinions, it’s a sign that we are not afraid of taking the driver’s seat. If you often contribute your opinions in discussions, gradually, your teammates will start to come to you for your opinions. And gradually, you will be seen as a leader.

5. We are paid for our judgments.
It’s easy for us to think that we are paid to get the work done and forget that we are also paid for our judgments. Often, as engineers, we have pressure from the business to get things done fast. Under pressure, it’s easy to give in and just do what is asked. We shouldn’t forget that the business pays us for our expertise. Voicing our opinions in the face of disagreements is often how we use our expertise to serve the business.

We as engineers are the closest to the code and to the application. It’s not easy to translate our knowledge into languages others without the same context can understand. But it’s literally our job to share the domain knowledge and vision (todo: link) we built up so the business can make more informed decisions.

What is stopping us from voicing our opinions

1. First of all, we need to have opinions.
Opinions require technical expertise and domain knowledge. How to gain technical expertise or how to build up domain knowledge can be separate posts on their own. But in brief, they come from experience. Reading books, watching talks, and most importantly, having technical discussions with senior engineers help speed up the learning process.

If we have opinions but are afraid of voicing them, it’s mainly due to the following two things:

2. We are afraid of being wrong.
This is the case when we are afraid of being seen as being wrong. We don’t want to look stupid and make a fool of ourselves in front of a group of people.

3. We are afraid of taking responsibility for being wrong.
This is the case when we have a big influence on the final decision but we are afraid of voicing our opinions because we don’t want to take responsibility. This is essentially us afraid of taking the driver’s seat.

Since these two points are both related to how to voice our opinions, I will defer the discussion to the next section.

When to and How to Voice Our Opinions

In general, there are two scenarios when our opinions are needed.

  1. The first one is when there are strong opinions in the room. The group is more or less finding the pros and cons of different options and making trade-offs.
  2. The second one is when there are no strong opinions in the room, and people come to you for your opinions because you have the most context or have relevant experience. This normally happens when people from higher levels come to you for your thoughts or people more junior than you come to you for advice. Either way, your opinion easily has a big influence on the final decision.

When there are different opinions in the room, I find the best way to resolve the conflict is to try to understand each party’s reasonings. I recently wrote a post about how to handle disagreements and conflicts at work that listed out detailed steps.

Fear of Being Wrong
To address the fear of being wrong or the fear of being seen as stupid, we should remind ourselves voicing our opinions helps us learn faster and wins us respect.

Besides that, it’s also important that we separate ourselves from our opinions. Making our opinions personal slows us down. Instead of thinking “if my opinion is wrong, it means I’m stupid”, you should just treat your opinion as an opinion or as someone else’s opinion. Just put it out there, show your teammates how you reach it, and examine it together. Separate yourself from your opinions and don’t make it personal.

Fear of Taking the Responsibility of Being Wrong.
This second case is something I recently struggled with. I am comfortable standing up for my opinions when there are other engineers in the room holding their own strong opinions. In a heated discussion, I feel that we are making a decision together. But when people with less context come to me and ask me to take the driver’s seat, I become much less comfortable.

When I reflect on this, I realize making a decision is not the part that troubles me. Being responsible for a big decision is what I’m not comfortable with.

Obviously, I’m still learning and am not an expert on this topic by any means. But here are some thoughts I have after talking to my manager about this.

1. Don’t feel that you are the only one making the decision.
Similar to the first case where a group of engineers debate over different approaches, in the case when your opinions have a big influence on the final decision, you shouldn’t feel you are the only one making the decision.

You don’t want the team to think they are committing to an approach because you believe in it. You want the team to arrive at the same conclusion by showing your reasonings.

Big decisions are normally formed by and examined by a group of people. The fact that your opinions have a big influence shows that you have the most context and your expertise is needed. That just further confirms that you should voice your opinions.

Instead of thinking you are making the decision and being responsible for the consequences on your own, you should think of it as your team’s decision. Your job is to best share your knowledge and help the team to make the most informed decision. When you and your team try your best, no matter if the decision is right or wrong, it’s the best decision you can make at that point of time with the limited amount of information and resource you have at hand.

2. Be straight forward with your opinions.
When I was not comfortable taking the driver’s seat, I tended to provide all the information I have while leaving the decision to others. Although I had opinions and preferences, I tended to express them in an indirect way.

In the case when someone from a higher level wants to get my thoughts on something, this strategy didn’t work well. The amount of information I provided normally overwhelmed people.

I realize if people simply want to get my thoughts on something without getting too involved, I should just be straight forward with my opinions.

3. Get comfortable taking responsibilities.
Although I mentioned that we shouldn’t feel we are the only one making a decision and being responsible for it, being comfortable of taking responsibilities is still a critical trait of being a leader. It’s something we need to work on and get more and more comfortable over time.

If no one is comfortable making a call and taking responsibilities, we will get trapped into analysis paralysis. Sometimes getting stuck at making a decision is worse than making the wrong decision, realizing the mistake, and moving on from it. A fast-growing organization constantly needs leaders to stand up, make a call, and lead the team forward.

Don’t be afraid to be the decision maker. Don’t be afraid to take the driver’s seat. That's how you learn and grow into a leader.

My career plan for the year is to grow into a tech lead. I’m excited about all the learnings ahead and would love to share this journey with you in a brutally honest fashion. I will be sharing my weekly learning on the blog.

In the next few months, I will focus on growing in the following areas. You can expect to see posts related to them:

  • focusing on the big picture of the project instead of near-term implementation details;
  • balancing my efforts between leading projects and coding;
  • work-life balance for long-term productivity;
  • the human side of software development: making sure everyone riding with me enjoys the ride and feels fulfilled and inspired.

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