Types of Engineers

Version One Engineers – Innovators

The first category of engineers are those who like to start with a clean sheet of paper and build something new. The original iPod engineers would fit into this category. There are two nuances within this category: 1) Truly new (the very first portable digital music player), 2) Major rework of a previously created item – enough to redefine the category (as iPod changed the MP3 player market).

Version 2-10 Engineers – Refiners

These are the engineers that take the last version of a product and add/change features to make the next version. These changes might be to add features that were left out of a V1 design due to time constraints, or because technology advances have made it possible to add features that were previously either too expensive and/or too big. They also might be to change features, for example to reduce cost of production.

For early follow-on versions (say, 2 & 3), there are still often many new features that could be added, especially where these features were left out of V1 due to schedule constraints. For later follow-on versions (6+), this is usually the stage in a product life cycle where the engineering focus is on optimization rather than on innovation – which is not to say that there can’t be innovative optimizations, but the focus here is usually more on reducing cost, increasing reliability, or such.


The final major category are those who can parachute into a horribly broken situation, and quickly apply diagnosis skills to figure out what is wrong, triage it, and get things working again.

These people are energized by the “firefight” and often will work 12-16 hours a day (or more) when fighting a fire. In between fires, they catch up on their rest in preparation for the next fire, and often participate in some other, necessary but less urgent engineering tasks until the next fire strikes.


Are these overly general? Probably. But surprisingly, after 20 years of putting these ideas “out there”, there are surprisingly few people who disagree.

One interesting observation, however, people more often don’t put themselves in the correct category. They may pick one category (Refiners), and yet everyone around them will label them as a Firefighter.



Previous Articles

Three Kinds of Engineers

Only Half Full

Taking a Sit

Making Decisions with Less Data

Temporal nature of success

Being overqualified

Defining what you're building

The real problem


Origins of the name


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The Tarpit Chronicles
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