All the best engineering advice I stole from non-technical people

Marianne Bellotti
13 min readAug 5, 2019
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As I focus on becoming a better manager of engineers, I have been reflecting more and more on the advice that produced a 10X boost in my abilities at that same stage. More often than not the best advice, the things that stuck with me, came from people who had no background at all in software.

I have been blessed (or cursed depending on your viewpoint I guess) with the privilege of high impact work on critical systems. This is work that naturally brings out a lot of self-doubt and anxiety. Over time I have found myself facing the same challenges, writing down the same thoughts and retelling the same stories in response. It’s intriguing that the stuff that really seems to make a difference in the quality of software never seems to be about software.

These are five of my favorites.

1. “People like us make our money in the seams of things”

Who said it: a Senior Official at the National Security Agency (NSA)

Context: There’s a long story about how I ended up in a State Department conference room with the NSA, but suffice to say it was a pretty crazy meeting in which a lot of very important people with impressive titles said a lot of stupid things about computer security. This would be the first of many times in my career in the federal government where we came in expecting to have a productive meeting with senior level leadership and were treated instead to a completely pointless dick measuring contest between three letter agencies. I remember the woman — and yes it was a woman — who made this comment was redirecting the conversation after her colleague had said something both wrong and insulting in response to a question from DHS. She was trying to defuse a situation, I doubt she thought much about her choice of words, but her insight was sharp and to the point. Security and reliability are more likely to go wrong in the seams between components. That means literal integrations, but it also means organization seams. Places where no one is sure who owns what, or who is responsible for what are unlikely to have proper monitoring and much more likely to be two or three upgrades behind. The seams are where things get lost, sometimes for years. So if your mandate is security or…

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Marianne Bellotti

Author of Kill It with Fire Manage Aging Computer Systems (and Future Proof Modern Ones)