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Becoming a good engineer is about collecting experience.

October 22, 2023

Becoming a good engineer is about collecting experience. Each project, even small ones, is a chance to add new techniques and tools to your toolbox. Where this delivers even more value is when you can solve problems by pairing techniques learned on one project with tools learned working on another. It all adds up.

When you first dipped your toes into the programming world, perhaps as a computer science student or a bootcamp newbie, you probably had a laser focus on learning specific programming languages or libraries. Your days might have been filled with mastering the syntax of Python, figuring out the intricacies of JavaScript, or diving into the principles of functional programming in Haskell.

But as your career progresses, the scope of your interest must broaden; not just in terms of technologies but also approaches, methodologies, and paradigms. And that is precisely what this article is about. The real value in evolving as an engineer isn't solely about amassing a heap of isolated skills but weaving them into an intricate web of abilities that's greater than the sum of its parts.

collecting experience

The Toolbox

Imagine your engineering skills as a toolbox. Every time you learn something new—a new algorithm, a new language, a new framework—you’re essentially adding a tool to this box. However, having a tool and knowing when and how to use it effectively are two entirely different things. Herein lies the value of experience. Each project, regardless of its scale, offers a unique set of challenges that help you understand the context in which a particular tool should be used.

Comfort zones are cozy, but they rarely contain lessons. Actively seek projects that make you stretch—your toolbox will thank you.

But your toolbox isn't a static entity; it evolves as you do. Over time, you'll not only add more tools but also start combining them in novel ways to solve increasingly complex problems. Your experience with RESTful APIs in one project might enable you to deftly integrate third-party services in another. Your understanding of multithreading could dramatically optimize performance in a data-heavy application. The key is that you don't have separate toolboxes for each project. It's one toolbox that benefits from each project's unique requirements and constraints.

Pairing Techniques and Tools

What often separates good engineers from great ones is the ability to pair techniques learned on one project with tools acquired on another. This cross-pollination of skills allows for more efficient problem-solving and often leads to more elegant solutions.

The quality of your toolbox isn't defined by the number of tools but by the richness of the problems they can solve.

A Real-world Example

Let’s consider a practical example. Suppose you've worked on an e-commerce website where you gained a deep understanding of database transactions to maintain inventory counts accurately. On a separate project, you delved into WebSocket programming for a real-time chat application. Now, you're tasked with developing a real-time dashboard for inventory management.

The skills from these seemingly disparate projects can be amalgamated to produce a robust solution. You could use WebSockets to push real-time updates to the dashboard while leveraging your deep understanding of database transactions to ensure that the inventory data is reliable and consistent. The pairing of these skills provides a distinct advantage: not only can you solve the problem, but you can also solve it in a way that is both efficient and elegant.

Stretching Beyond Your Comfort Zone

This leads us to an important point about stretching beyond your comfort zone. It's easy to gravitate towards projects that align with your existing skill set; they're familiar and less intimidating. However, the more varied your experience, the broader your toolbox becomes, and the more capable you are of making these fruitful pairings. Actively seek projects that force you to learn something new or think in a way you haven't before. You'll find that the benefits often spill over into projects that seem unrelated on the surface.

Staying Agile and Adaptable

Of course, technology is always advancing, and the tools you've mastered today might not be as relevant tomorrow. This doesn't make them obsolete in your toolbox, though. Instead, it sharpens your ability to adapt and innovate. For instance, the rise of cloud-native architectures hasn't made knowledge of traditional relational databases irrelevant. Understanding SQL and database design fundamentals can significantly enhance your ability to work with newer data storage solutions.

Practical Tips for Accumulating Valuable Experience

Mastering a tool is a milestone; knowing when and how to use it is the journey. There are a number of options for building experience:

Curate a Mix of Projects: Try to work on a range of projects—different scales, different technologies, different problem domains. Each will add something unique to your toolbox.

Reflect and Document: After completing a project, take some time to reflect on what you’ve learned. Better yet, document it. This can be a private repository of “lessons learned” or public blog posts that help solidify your understanding and share knowledge.

Engage with the Community: Be it through open-source contributions, or social platforms tailored for developers, community involvement provides exposure to problems you might not encounter otherwise.

Mentor and Be Mentored: One of the most effective ways to consolidate your learning is to teach it to someone else. Similarly, don't shy away from seeking advice or learning from engineers who specialize in areas you're unfamiliar with.

Never Stop Learning: Whether it's through online courses, webinars, or just tinkering with a new language over the weekend, continuous learning is the lubricant for an ever-evolving career.


Skill cross-pollination isn't just serendipity; it's engineering elegance. The best solutions often come from pairing unexpected techniques

So the next time you find yourself wrestling with a new problem, delve into your toolbox of experience. You might find that the solution isn’t just in mastering a new tool but in cleverly using the tools you’ve gathered over the years. It's this layered, nuanced approach to problem-solving that truly marks career progression and sets you apart as an engineer.