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I have met interns who made a bigger impact on projects than experienced engineers. How can some engineers rise the ranks fast, while others stay on the same level for years? An interesting question I philosophized over with my friend Bart.


First I’d like to share a story of a project that forced all engineers outside of their comfort zone. A big project was approaching. We were doing a research phase for a month. To decide which of the two platforms would suit our needs the best to rebuild our complete website.

All our engineers got mixed in either one of the two teams. And started building a prototype. The most challenging aspect? For both teams, the technology and infrastructure were completely new.

During that month I noticed a surprising thing. Two interns in one team took the lead and carried the project. While senior engineers struggled to be out of their comfort zone and start from scratch. How could it be that 2 interns who hadn’t even graduated took the lead while seniors struggled?

This reminds me of a pottery class. Some engineers are the clay to be sculpted. While others are the sculptors that shape them. So what sets them apart? Let’s dive in!


Engineers who are clay get shaped. Like the senior engineers who had trouble performing in situations where they couldn’t depend on their experience in the research project.

Things somehow always happen to them. They miss big changes, incidents happen to them, and somehow never are fully in charge of their scope. If they get promoted they get it because they have been in the same spot for several years.

Some other characteristics of clay:

  • Do what’s asked, build the requirements without any questions
  • Focus on your own thing
  • Stay inside their comfort zone
  • Are a victim of their environment
  • Their problems get solved by other people

These engineers can make a solid contribution to a team. But it can hold a team back if there are too many on a team.

The sculptor

Engineers who are the sculptors are the engineers who shape their environment. They have a natural curiosity for things. They often ask questions like “Why are we doing things this way?” and are not satisfied with “We have always done it like this“. They seem to be allergic to friction and are actively looking to remove it.

I’m not taking any coding skills into account. I’ve seen on several occasions that a happy and eager intern can make a big difference. Sure you need to have tech skills. But as long as you have a decent base, I found it to be less important.

Some other characteristics of the sculptor:

  • Try new things, are not afraid to fail & learn
  • Looks for the ‘why’ behind things
  • Actively try to solve friction & problems
  • Shape their environment to set them up for success
  • Promotions happen quicker

These engineers take projects forward and lift teams to a new level.

Next steps

Since I discovered the clay vs sculptor mentality, I have applied it to my day-to-day job as an Engineering Manager. The biggest benefits I found in hiring. My questions are aimed at uncovering if someone is a sculptor. This reminds me of this article on hiring low experience high potential staff.

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