The Importance Of Being Junior

by Paul Adams

The whole concept of "career" can be daunting when you are first starting out. A career takes a long time and probably won't go exactly to plan unless you are very singularly focussed on some specific goal. However, with support you will find your way. Finding that support can sometimes be harder than it should however. Engineering managers, here's why you need to make room for juniors...

On Football...

I'm not sure I am going to be saying anything new in this post. I can save you five minutes now by saying the thesis of this article is simple: hire juniors, you need them and so do we all. In one form or another I've been saying this for years. This post, in that sense, is nothing more than a regularly-scheduled reminder.

But let's start with football... soccer, not that weird stuff from the US...

Last night saw the final is the 2020 European Championship and England were playing Italy. Tradition dictates two things:

  • England never win
  • They will be knocked out of the tournament by penalties

In these regards, last night was highly traditional. Of the 5 English penalty-takers 1 was arguably very junior - 19 year old Bukayo Saka. He took unusual approaches to his penalty kick and it did not pay off. Ultimately, England lost because of this.

Allowing one of the least experienced players (they volunteer for this horrendous duty) to take a penalty kick was far from a mistake. Actually, it was a stroke of genius from a manager who knows a lot about this situation...

...And Gareth Southgate

Q: What's the fastest way out of Wembley Stadium? A: Via the Southgate!

Back in 1996, a young Gareth Southgate missed a penalty kick in the quarter-final of the same tournament. Tradition dictates that penalty kick glory comes from aiming for the hard-to-reach corners. On that day Gareth tried to tuck the ball under the crossbar, square in the middle of the goal. Instead, under pressure, he hoofed the ball well over the top of the crossbar. And 1000s of lame jokes were born.

Fast forward 25 years and Gareth Southgate is highly respected as one of the strongest managers of the English national team... basically since 1996.

He knows what it was like... he knows the pressure... he knows the devastation of failure. So why did he allow two of the most junior members of his squad to take penalties? Because he's a great manager.

Under the right circumstances, when you are being very careful as a manager, taking a calculated risk on your juniors can really pay off. Here's my take:

  • Those junior might have scored and played their role in taking England to victory;
  • or, they might fail and learn from it. It would be a hard lesson, but there are bigger tournaments coming (World Cup in 2022!) where this may turn out to be valuable experience.

So Gareth used the moment to give some highly valuable experience to some junior players. 25 years later, Gareth went on to become a great manager. I'm certain Bukayo will do, likewise.

To top it all off, it was Gareth who took responsibility for the missed opportunity for glory. In pretty much and press coverage of the game you see today, the message is clear: Gareth failed, not the team.

Nice of him. But, I really don't think he failed at all. Quite the opposite.

OK, Back To Software Engineering

Software Engineering is, ultimately, knowledge work. We succeed/fail as engineers based upon our experience, ability to synthesise that for the current situation and then, of course, deliver.

We get paid to think, not to write code.

The more experience we gain, the more we become biased by that experience. "This worked for me in the past, we should try this again..." Potential solutions immediately get thrown out (perhaps even before being articulated) because we tell ourselves it's too complicated, it's too slow... it just won't work!

Juniors do not have this bias. Not enough experience to know what will or will not work. Just ideas. Lots of ideas. With good management Juniors should be encouraged to share those ideas freely. Firstly, because this is a great habit for the rest of their career, but secondly because maybe, just maybe, that "crazy" idea is not so crazy. That, unencumbered by history, they produce the idea that the more-senior engineers are incapable of.

None of us can predict the future. But with careful planning and teamwork, that crazy idea might just hit the back of the net. But, if it skyrockets over the crossbar, and the manager has provided a safe environment for that to happen, the junior will learn from it. The whole team will learn from it.

You're Junior just got a little less junior. Your team just got a little stronger. And next time, you have an even better chance of winning the cup.