Rambo vs. Campbell
The bad guys are winning. People have lost all hope.
Who could possibly still save the day?
Some noise comes from the bushes.
All of a sudden, an excessively muscular dude with a head band jumps out from the branches. He’s carrying a large machine gun, wearing belts of ammo over his shoulders.
Ratatatatata. Bing bang boom. He shoots all the bad guys.
The people cheer. Women rush into his arms. John Rambo saved the day.
I never rewatched any Rambo movie since I was a kid, but I’m pretty sure this was more or less the gist of every Rambo movie. He’s the prototypical example of a hero. Rambo can solve any problem through sheer force, by himself. One bad guy, a whole army, it really doesn’t matter. Bing bang boom. Done. You’re welcome. Mic (or I suppose, gun) drop.
Likely, at some level, we all want to be Rambo. We thrive on recognition, we all want to have impact. And the more attributable this impact is to us, the better we feel. And what is a more obvious display of impact than saving the day, than being the hero?
Do we see Rambo-style behavior in the world of engineering? Oh yeah, we do.
Exhibit 1: the drive-by rewrite
You open your virtual door in the morning, look down and there it is: a massive pile of code on your doorstep. It looks vaguely familiar, but has an odd smell.
As you’re trying to make sense of it, you recognize it as code that you own, but it’s been completely rewritten without your involvement. Next to it you find a note:
This code was kinda problematic, so I rewrote it for ya’.
“Thank you, Rambo... I guess?” you yell into the void.
After poking at the code a bit with a stick, a weird substance comes out that you don’t recognize. Would it be OK to simply dump this into the trash?
Exhibit 2: the hero programmer
From a Quora thread answering “what is a hero programmer?”:
“Hero Programmer” is a derogatory name for a programmer who chooses to fix problems in epic, caffeine-fueled 36-hour coding sessions that frequently just kick the can down the road to the next heroic 36-hour coding blitz. Hero programmers would rather react than plan. Projects with hero programmers working on them often make a lot of progress initially, but never arrive at a stable state of completion.
What does success look like for Rambo? Tons of dead bodies. And then signing a deal to do it all again in Rambo 2, and 3, and then 4, and then 5 — if he makes it.
Rambo doesn’t have a long term vision. Rambo doesn’t do team work. Rambo doesn’t consider people’s feelings as they’re pushed aside to make way for his tour-de-force.
Has Rambo made any significant contribution to solving deeper issues? In his case this would be the Vietnam War (the war in which most of this action took place)? Leaving aside that Rambo is a fictional character — of course not. This is not how you solve real issues. We all know it.
Doesn’t it feel and look awesome, though?
What do Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Eric Schmidt, Sundar Pichai, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Jack Dorsey, and Sheryl Sandberg have in common?
They will likely attribute a lot of their success to one guy: Bill Campbell.
Chances are you have never heard of Campbell. No movies were made about his life. He’s no Rambo. He operated largely in the background. He made his biggest impact through coaching and mentoring key people and teams of people. Some of them I just listed. Rather than giving answers, he’d ask questions. Rather than firing bullets, he’d teach the psychology of conflict.
When Rambo left the scene, the movie ended. When Campbell passed away, his funeral was attended by the who’s-who of the tech industry. Some collaborated to write a book about him, and his mindset and approach will be felt by generations of people in our industry as it is passed on, and on, and on.
“If I would have done this myself, it would have been done by now!” is just about everybody’s struggle as they progress in their careers. It seems to be a must-have experience as you’re getting ol... err, senior.
While we may like to believe otherwise, here’s a spoiler for you: whether you stick with the technical track or pivot to the managerial one — ultimately the key to being successful as a “senior” person is going to be the same: your ability to be less like Rambo, and more like Campbell.
It’s slow. It’s frustrating. But ultimately it’s the only approach that has a lasting impact and scales.
Welcome to senior life. Nobody said it was going to be easy.
There is an upside, though. Campbell could go on vacation and everything kept running. Without Rambo everybody was helpless. Not being the sole driver for progress is good, since inevitably our muscles and knowledge of the state-of-the-art in artillery will wear out.
We can sit on the sideline, skip a few scenes, and leave the muscle flexing to other people.
Then, one day, we will pull them aside.
“Hey,” we’ll say, “let me tell you a story about Rambo and Campbell.”