There was a recent poll on Twitter about whether you should discount the engineering leadership advice from leaders whose in the field performance is perhaps less than ideal. Got me thinking about why writing about engineering leadership is hard. I came up with at least 4 reasons.

1. At small scale, and with reasonable numbers of people, literally almost anything works.

Software is an incredibly forgiving medium. Computers are ridiculously powerful. The scope, breadth, and quality of open source software in the world is a foundation unlike any profession in history has ever built on. On demand SaaS closes the gap. Survivor bias dominates at this stage. Probably the closest thing to a universal piece of advice is: don’t run out of money.

2. At large scale, and large numbers of people, basically nothing works.

Groups of computers and groups of humans are both complex systems and the interaction of them is definitionally unpredictable. Even the most banal advice can frequently be wrong, and if somehow you end up with the right advice for you particular situation, it still needs to be applied skillfully. Best advice for this stage is: be a good person. No guarantees it will improve your engineering outcomes, but at least at the end of the day you’re a good person.

3. Proximal causes of success are often not obvious.

Many people have experienced successful engineering organizations. These experiences are normal places to draw upon when trying to come up with advice on how to make engineering organizations successful. However the causes of success are often not obvious, because they occurred somewhere else in the organization, or in the past, or were never recognized as the source of success. This phenomena is familiar to anyone who has worked with someone straight out of one of the large powerhouse engineering companies who has shown up with a long list of things that work, and no working knowledge of how or why.

4. Writing is hard.

Writing is actually an incredibly relevant skill for engineering leadership (and engineering in general), but it’s still hard. You can have all the insights in the world, and still struggle to convey your message or find the right audience.