The Plight of An Engineer: Does Confidence Come from Peer Affirmation?

Do you ever find yourself doing all the right things for the wrong reasons? If you’re anything like me, you do this more often than you would like to admit. It is far more common for me to get carried away with wrong thinking than it is to have pure motives. And it’s because of that, that I have some things I need to get off my chest.

There is a question that I constantly, almost daily, have to ask myself, “Why do I start with the best intentions and always come up short when it comes to motivations?”

You see, I love teaching, nurturing, and watching people around me grow in their technical ability. I get some kind of natural high when I am able to help someone out. I think it is the greatest thing that there are people on Twitter who have never met me, but are willing to help me with some technical problem. It is equally as great that people spend their time writing blogs (or podcasts) that they put out for free for my consumption.

Seriously, think about that for a moment; what an amazing field we have chosen to work in. In fact, I find it so invigorating that I try to help people as much as I can. There is something inside of me that wants to give back to the community that has helped me so much as I have grown and continue to grow as an engineer.

Here’s the problem: I find myself equally, if not more excited when I get retweeted, or one of my blog posts hits it “big”. You know, when you find yourself hitting F5 over and over on your Google analytics page to see how many people aren’t reading your blog. Or you’re having a conversation with someone; suddenly a *great* tweet pops in your head; you tweet it and wait anxiously for the retweets to begin. This becomes the validation for your awesomeness. You know how great you are, but for some reason you need others to validate how great you are.

OK, maybe it’s just me. I am ashamed to admit it but I constantly fall into this trap. I find myself wrapped up in my own mind wanting more and more attention from my virtual peeps. Somehow I feel as though my identity, my self-worth is wrapped up in how *popular* I am online. That my networking skillz (yes, skillz with a Z) can only be validated by how much ataboys and “Wow you’re a genius” comments I get on a daily basis. If I’m not getting it in person, well then heck I have to get it online. After all, there are WAY more people to behold my glory online.

Here’s the thing. I don’t think I am alone in this, while it may not be as big of a struggle for some; it is definitely an issue I have seen time and time again in the field of IT.

Where does it come from?

I believe it stems from the fact that we are paid by how much we know. So we must strive and struggle to prove our worth. It’s almost as if the further into our career we go, the more proud and egotistical our behavior must become. If we aren’t the best and brightest around, then why would a company want us? We constantly feel the pressure that we must earn our keep day in and day out. And forget it if we don’t know something…that is just death as we know it.

Is this reality?

Do we really need to think like this? No, I think engineers put this pressure on themselves – while not entirely, for the most part it is our fault.

What can we do?

Honestly, I wish I had the answer to that. I have tried time and time again to let it go. My family does not judge me based on my OSPF skills or how well I can explain the traffic flow internally inside a Cat 6500. And at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter.

So why am I publicly admitting to my own egotistical behavior? I have no idea – really I don’t. Maybe it is just my narcissism, unabashedly releasing itself into the wild. Or maybe I am just looking for some empathy from some fellow engineers who struggle the same. Or maybe yet, it is my way of holding me accountable to change. At any rate, I cannot stop trying to help and give back to the community, even if that means my motives aren’t always as pure as I would like them to be.

If one out of every 100 times I strike it rich and my motives are pure, it is worth the 99 times that they aren’t. If I can help in any small way, if I can give back just an ounce what has been given to me, it is worth it no matter what.

So here is my advice – just have fun. We get to work with some really cool technology, so let’s just have fun and forget about being the best and the brightest. If you have fun and just keep learning, I believe it is only natural that you will become a great engineer – one that isn’t so paranoid and annoying.

Let’s just keep putting material out there, let’s keep helping as best as we know how and maybe, just maybe, our egos will take a side step and we can get on with it.

Well, I feel better. Thanks for listening.

CJ

cjinfantino
I am a Husband, Father, Nerd for packets, and a Christian. I work as an IP Network Engineer for a local SP in upstate NY. I mostly focus on Route/Switch but also have a passion for *nix and all things open source. You can find my blog at ConvergingOnTheEdge.com, catch me on Twitter @cjinfantino or find me at Google+ as CJ Infantino.
  • http://twitter.com/networkjanitor Kurt Bales

    Hey Mate,

    Great post, and I will put my hand up to admit to the same. I think its ultimately a combination of a) Egotism, b) wanting to be accepted, c) frustration, d) being appreciated and best of all e) knowing that other people understand your pain/experience/clever pun that your regular “day to day” friends just dont understand :P

    All of the above in different proportions from tweet to tweet, post to post :P

    K.

    • http://twitter.com/cjinfantino CJ Infantino

      Man you hit the nail on the head! I couldn’t have said it any better. 

    • http://showbrain.blogspot.com Ben Story

      I fully agree.  I too can raise my hand and admit it.  Hi my name is Ben and I’m a Geek Addict.  For me I think the biggest thing is that being the only network engineer in my organization, it provides me a way to communicate with others that understand.  

    • http://twitter.com/pandom_ Anthony Burke

      I feel e) could be the most valid for many. I know I don’t necessarily work with like minded individuals who are in network engineer role. Yet I see my blog and others here on Packet Pushers as a way for me to communicate and natter on with other like-minded individuals. 

  • http://twitter.com/Vegaskid1973 Matt Thompson

    You are all wrong. Try again. ;-)

  • Eoghan Cullen

    Nothing to do with being a certain type of network engineer, think broader, way broder.

  • Anonymous

    Who are you?

    *kidding*

  • Alexandra Stanovska

    I could see where this is coming from. Writing documentation or updating team wiki is so not personal and nobody reads it anyway. You send e-mail with some useful stuff and you get just response of “OMG yet another spam from you?” Meant in a humorous way, but 99% of the time people just tuck it in some folder to Read It Later(tm). Or at least you get no response if it was helpful just a little bit or not.

    There is total lack of feedback from colleagues and what’s worse even from your managers. Writing blog or tweet increases chance that someone out there on intarwebz finds it useful and reacts. You at least got to the point of writing something, but many people (including myself) just get stuck thinking their knowledge, experience and career is so boring that it barely contributes anything useful.

    Good reading btw, thanks.

  • http://networkchick.wordpress.com/ The Network Chick

    At the beginning of my career, as a Network Engineer, I was(am) constantly seeking the approval of my managers. I even keep a little file where I place all of the “good job” emails; never pulling them out for my reviews. It is just for me to look at. 

    I think it comes from two areas: the network is virtually invisible and there are so few network people in an organization. 

    Users have never run up to me and said OMG! I was able to have the greatest video conference while shopping to shoes and IMing with my latest internet stalker! You totally made that happen and you rock! 

    The rest of the network people are (in my experience) stretched so thin that stopping to say you are doing a good job is not something they have time for or the social skills are lacking and they wouldn’t know how to say it. 

    • http://twitter.com/cjinfantino CJ Infantino

      I would add that in our field, to some, giving a peer praise or admit they did something good means we have failed and the other person is better than us. There is so much competition and fear among fellow packet pushers (at least in my experience) that peers are not willing to be real and give credit where credits due. Just my experience though.

  • http://twitter.com/matthewnorwood Matthew Norwood

    CJ,

    We all have egos. Every single one of us. Humility is something our industry could use a little more of, but you just learn to deal with it after a while. Perhaps it is the esoteric nature of what we do. It makes us think a little more highly of ourselves than we should. 

    Do we all want to be validated? Of course. Keep in mind that for most people in IT, the only time customers interact with you is when there is a problem. Very rarely do you get phone calls or visits for happy things. I think a small part of the yearning we all have for validation from our peers is in part a desire to communicate with people who understand what it is we do on a regular basis.

    What I think you are really trying to say is that you want a seat at the table. You want to be on equal footing with your fellow network engineers. You want your voice to be heard. I get that. My advice is to simply follow your own advice and just have fun. If you get a billion Twitter followers, then so be it. If you don’t, then so what. I follow over a thousand accounts. There are some with only a handful of followers, and yet when they speak, it is usually something pretty profound. Others just vomit out nonsense left and right and I only continue to follow them because every now and then they say something that I want to hear.

    I have a tab in HootSuite called “Narcissism”. It displays all my mentions, retweets, and direct messages. I labeled it that because that’s what it is for the most part. We speak because we think others want to hear what we have to say. That doesn’t mean it is a bad thing. Sometimes our motivations are pure. Other times, we just talk to hear ourselves talk, and yes, that applies to me too!

    If you really want to delve into the psyche of your fellow bloggers, tweeters, podcasters, social media enthusiasts, etc, pay attention to HOW they say certain things. You can easily spot the ones who think way too highly of themselves. That’s the easy part. The hard part is spotting the one’s who put on the “martyr” persona but have egos that rival many Hollywood celebrities. In short, don’t be anyone but yourself.

    The fact that I was able to meet you in Las Vegas back in November means that I can better understand where you are coming from. It REALLY does help when we can all meet each other in person. We also tend to respond and interact more with people we have met in real life as opposed to a stranger on the Internet.

    Matthew

  • http://twitter.com/cloudtoad Derick Winkworth

    The truth… it burns like the sun!!!  AAAAGGGGHHHH….