Design Engineer Anxiety

Last week I did something I haven't done for a while: I wrote an honest-to-goodness blog article. Not some quick "here's how I did X" or an overview of something that's happened to me IRL, but an actual think piece – somewhere I try and hash out an idea that's been niggling away in the back of my head into a cohesive whole. In this particular instance, a combination of discussions at work and a couple of tweets had got me thinking about the nebulous nature of the job title "frontend engineer". Weirdly, it seems I was far from alone.

I started writing What Even Am I? on Tuesday and hit publish on Wednesday, a turnaround time orders of magnitude faster than an article like that would normally take. Then I did something I haven't done in even longer: I tweeted about it. I fired my work out into the gaping void of social media where it was met with deafening silence, and all felt right again in the world. Until I logged onto Twitter mid-afternoon on Thursday to see a tweet from Trys Mudford being shared on my timeline. Trys had just published an article on their own website entitled On Design Engineering: I think I might be a design engineer... where he was discussing pretty much the same topic. Then, just another day later, I see a new post by Jeremy Keith drop into my RSS feed: Design Engineer. A quick check on Twitter and even more people are discussing this topic.

What just happened? Normally, I write these kinds of blog posts after reading other people's thoughts on the matter, not before them. And, normally, I wouldn't feel quite so panicked about it...

Because that was my overarching reaction to these posts. Not elation that other people – people with far more experience; people I look up to in this industry – were talking about the same thing as me. Not a smug satisfaction that for once I was slightly ahead of the curve. Not even a kind of happy interest in seeing some more perspectives.

No, it made me feel anxious. I even tweeted about it later that night:

Tweet from 11pm on Feb 19, 2021 that reads: Between Trys and @adactio (and the myriad people I've now seen tweeting in support of their posts) I feel heavily rebutted for my anti-Design Engineer stance. But it still makes me feel a little panicky.

Still, once the dust had settled around my awkward attempts at social media, I was left trying to work out why?! What was up with this anxiety? Yes, both Trys and Jeremy (and just about everyone else I'd seen talking about this online, like Andy, and Brad, and Cassie) all disagreed with me: they were all fully on board the "design engineer" train. But that kind of thing doesn't normally rattle me. Normally, I like hearing differing opinions (especially from people like this, who so routinely give me pause for thought); I don't want to run away from them. So what was different this time?

Having slept on it, I think it's because I'm worried a door is closing on me before I'd even really got a glimpse inside. I remember first reading The Great Divide and feeling both seen and empowered by it. Here was someone putting into words a fear I had, sharing it with the world, and then finding that a large part of the community was rallying around them. Even if it was a mouthful, thinking of myself as a front-of-the-frontend developer gave me a sense of place and a feeling of belonging.

But like I said in my post on Wednesday, the term design engineer doesn't share that same feeling. That's not a group I can comfortably belong in. And seeing one after another of these people I respect embracing that term, that new group, and no one else speaking up, well, talk about imposter syndrome kicking in 😂 Even worse, having read both Trys and Jeremy's articles, having mulled them over, and having followed at least some of the ensuing discussions around Twitter, I can't fault them. The term fits, and it fits well. Just not for me – and that's where the anxiety was coming from (even if I didn't realise it at that time).

There are definitely some useful takeaways here on a personal level. It's helped me rethink parts of my relationship with social media, which can only be a good thing. It's also been a useful touchpoint for reconsidering why I have a blog and what its aims are. But most importantly, it's given me some interesting new aspects of the frontend world to begin thinking about and experimenting with moving forward.

Nevertheless, if we end up in a world of Frontend Engineers and Design Engineers, who knows, maybe they'll occasionally need a slight jack-of-all-trades that can sit in the middle. A person that sees themselves as more programmer than designer, but also more user champion than system architect. That likes solving people problems more than coding challenges. Maybe I'll be one of the first Frontend Fullstack Engineers[1]. Or maybe my career will take me in a different direction entirely. And maybe I'm okay with that, after all 😊

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What Even Am I?

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  • <p>Having literally just pushed my ideas about job titles out into the world, I discovered that the world was coming to a totally different conclusion. That was an unusual and anxiety-inducing position to be in, but I think it was ultimately beneficial.</p>
  • Murray Adcock.
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