The Double-Brained Engineer

How to overcome the 'right-brain disadvantage' as a software engineer.

Evan Stalter
Senior Technology Engineer
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I have always felt like an alien in the field of software engineering to some strange degree.

Could it be Impostor Syndrome, or some twisted variant? Impostor Syndrome, or doubting your abilities, can affect many people. I’m no exception. As a software engineer, it’s probably due to the vast and ultimately incomprehensible nature of the subject matter (consider an OpenSource and Cloud-centric universe that is ever-expanding). Thankfully, I work in IT at State Farm® where colleagues are supportive and willing to help mentor the less-experienced. As a result, I’ve become more confident in my role as a software engineer, and have helped several efforts succeed due to this nurturing and collaborative environment.

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In school, I enjoyed my left-brained Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) classes and received the same grades in them as I did in my more creative (right-brained) classes. However, I never felt as though math, science, or computer programming came naturally to me. I had to work at it. This is in stark contrast to my music and English classes - - I was a born musician (trombone, euphonium, and piano are my specialties) and a born creative writer. To this day, I prefer band rehearsals to hack-a-thons. I prefer novels to technical literature.

So how is it that I’ve built a career in software engineering? It’s because I believe both sides of the brain need to be used equally to be an effective software engineer. For most, one side activates easier than the other, but that is not an excuse to forego exercising the less cooperative side.

This is especially true at State Farm, where a Technology Engineer is charged with paving the way for development teams through solving complex challenges, coaching developers and contributing to the advancement of the overall technical culture of State Farm.

Not daunting at all, eh?

I became a State Farm Technology Engineer in February 2020. Immediately, I found myself having to learn everything about Kubernetes from scratch in order to build a mission-critical service virtualization suite, as well as a data migration framework that required automated testing that had never before been attempted. It was a massive challenge for my left brain to tackle, but by the end of 2020, I had accomplished the task.

How could this happen?

The secret behind this accomplishment was a mystery to me until I received this feedback from a colleague:

“Most engineers stop with saying, ‘This is possible.’ Evan makes his solutions consumable.”

It was then that I realized my right-brained-ness was my greatest strength. My right-brain could not be satisfied with stopping at the end of the proof-of-concept. It needed me to engage my intuition and people skills to have these technical solutions implemented.

Here are three takeaways from my experience for others who are in the same predicament:

1. When switching between right and left brain utilization, pause and breathe for a minute.

Scenario: You are deep in the weeds of coding, when suddenly you receive a message from a developer who needs assistance. Since what they are working on is of higher priority, you shift over and assist them.

It can be difficult to immediately switch over to help, with your brain still distracted with what you were working on, or worse, frustrated that you were interrupted. Give your brain time to adjust. Pause for a minute and breathe deeply. This will enable you to bookmark your present left-brain work and invest more of your energy into the right-brain work of assisting others.

2. Indulge your instinctive brain and exercise your other brain.

This revolves around how you manage your work schedule. Are you working in a way that continuously recharges your mental stamina? Mental stamina can be refilled when you get a chance to work on what you are passionate about (i.e., indulging the instinctive side of your brain). Whether left-brained or right-brained, engineers should give themselves time to focus on a single task without disruptions. Scheduling time blocks to dedicate oneself to one activity can help make this possible. Give your brain time to see a pursuit through to the end.

3. Avoid quicksand.

Scenario: You are asked to engineer a solution for a team that will remove a major roadblock from their path. You work with developers to understand the product and build the best solution. Two months later, you are still developing stories and fixing defects with the solution the team has built.

The quicksand of never-ending development work is dangerously easy to fall into. Once your name is tied to a product, it can be hard to detach yourself from it. Even so, it is vital to understand that your work must be future-focused. Build the solution, socialize it and move on.

Practicing these principles is not easy, but take it from a right-brained engineer - - they work. At the end of the day, the pursuit of excellence in software engineering involves engaging both sides of your brain. In doing so, a profound truth will become known to you: You are not an impostor. You are better than you realize.

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