How engineering made me a better executive

Taylor Majewski

Behind every great tech company, there is a powerful technical team.

These teams, from software engineers to web designers, work to make sure products — the core of any tech company — run efficiently. To that end, solid technical leadership is paramount, as these are the executives that assemble, scale and motivate strong engineering teams.

We spoke with local engineers to find out how their technical skillsets translate to their executive positions. Here’s what they’ve learned along the way.

Turbonomic is an enterprise cloud and virtualization software company. The company’s hybrid cloud management platform simulates supply and demand forces in order to help companies efficiently allocate resources such as computing and storage. We spoke with Navaz Katki, VP of Private Cloud Engineering, to talk more about how he leads the company’s engineering team.

How does your developer skillset translate to your leadership position?

Having worked as a developer prior to becoming an engineering manager, I can focus on the technical details that are key to good feature development. This transcends all stages of development from design to implementation. For example, when designing new features it is important to follow good design principles that result in a clean design with a well-defined component API that is scalable. Having been a developer, it is natural for me to think in these terms and ask the right questions when reviewing the design.

Similarly, when writing code, we need to make sure it is robust enough to handle error conditions gracefully, maintainable and well documented. These are just some of the aspects of well-written code. Again, having prior development experience allows me to focus on the right areas for delivering a feature with high quality.

What has been a challenge of engineering at scale and how have you overcome it?

One of the most amazing experiences for me was watching Turbonomic grow from five developers to over 400 employees and from zero customers to over 1700. It is very gratifying to be part of such a journey and you definitely learn a lot along the way!

Growing at a fast pace brings its own challenges. For example, we may need to have more processes in place to be able to manage this accelerated growth and continue to be effective. This is not a trivial task, especially if you want to maintain the ‘startup’ culture and agility of delivery while sharpening the quality to match enterprise level demand. Having the right teams and leaders in place is a must. In addition, being able to learn from past mistakes, adapt to new processes needed for scaling is necessary. Keeping our customers in the forefront as we grow is important. It is critical that they remain satisfied and get value from our product. It’s one of the pillars for continued success and they are our best champions for prospective customers. We also need to ensure that our product scales well to support the needs of large enterprise organizations. Finally, we need to continue to develop features that add value and stay ahead of the game. Accomplishing all of this takes a lot of planning and focused execution. We continue to adapt our processes as we grow to be successful while keeping it an exciting place for our employees.

What's the most important lesson you've learned in leading your tech team?

One of the most important lessons I have learned is that you need to be engaged with the team at the right level and know your team. Also, I have learned to be prepared to face challenges that may come along the way. Through my leadership career, I have learned that communicating at the right level is very important. Be engaged but don’t micro-manage your team. Be honest in your feedback and be open to listening to theirs. Managing is an art where you need to know the strengths and weaknesses of your team members. This enables you to leverage their strengths (let them flourish) and guide them to overcome their weakness. As a leader, I believe in being a champion for my team, motivating them and building a good team spirit. Finally, I continue to learn every day and believe in my ability to do the right thing.

 

Handshake runs a mobile sales and B2B e-commerce platform that is aimed at manufacturers and distributors. Instead of using old-fashioned paper systems, companies can save money and time bringing their systems not only online, but onto just about any device they want. We spoke with Handshake co-founder and CEO Glen Coates to discuss how his engineering background has helped as a chief executive.

How does your developer skillset translate to your leadership position?

Handshake is a software-as-a-service company. Being an engineering CEO leading a team building what has become a complex software system has allowed me to champion it with sincerity and depth with customers, investors and employees from a place of deep understanding and be much more effective in bringing the right people along for the journey. This has also been important in guiding the strategy of the company, since so much of it is tied to the product and what its innate strengths and weaknesses are, which helps focus the company on areas it can win and avoid areas it has no business being in.

What has been a challenge of engineering at scale and how have you overcome it?

Like any company that successfully builds up a customer base around their first product, there will be tech debt from earlier stages, but there never seems like there is a good time to pay it down. The challenge is picking the right moment to take your medicine and set yourself up for the next phase of growth. It's tempting to stretch the current tech just one more sprint, one more quarter, but my experience has been that usually the legacy tech is hurting your team's effectiveness and your customer's happiness more than you think, and it's just that you have become more numb to its downsides than you realize.

Recently, we have been looking more to external solutions for simple, scalable ways to help pay down tech debt. Just because third-party solutions didn't exist the first time you tackled the problem doesn't mean they don't exist now; keep your eyes on the market and avoid the "NIH" mindset.

What's the most important lesson you've learned in leading your tech team?

Figure out how to be a true multiplier and create an environment in which your team can do amazing things; my journey has been from solo engineer founder to player/coach of small dev team to being a "true" CEO and becoming more distant from the code and the engineering team. I have been on both sides of the sweet spot; I have been too involved in programming when I should have been leading, and I have been too distant from the tech and left the team to make expensive mistakes when a little guidance or context would have avoided them and saved everyone time.

Find your sweet spot where you are involved enough to act as a true multiplier to your team (e.g. providing customer stories, describing real-world use cases, helping engineers understand the reasons why that thing is built that way even though it makes no sense at first glance) but give them enough room to really flex and do what you brought them here to do.

 

Since launching in 2010, DataDog, a SaaS-monitoring platform for cloud applications, has helped companies turn their IT data into actionable insights. Accordingly, DataDog has racked up an impressive roster of clients, including corporations such as Airbnb, Netflix, Twilio, EA, Spotify and Warner Bros. We caught up with Alexis Le-Quoc, co-founder and CTO, to find out more about his leadership style.

How does your developer skillset translate to your leadership position?

Writing and debugging code trains you to rely on facts and logic to do your job. In a leadership position, this helps bring clarity of thought and purpose, which are key to motivating teams to work toward common goals.

What has been a challenge of engineering at scale and how have you overcome it?

The biggest challenge of engineering at scale were the interdependencies between systems (and teams) which slow the pace of innovation and new product development once your grow past 20 people. But with a lot of careful planning around how product areas and teams should be organized, we have been able to scale engineering quickly.

What's the most important lesson you've learned in leading your tech team?

Attracting and hiring great talent is one of the most important (and difficult) things for a rapidly scaling tech team.

 

 Eyeview is an adtech company that focuses on producing and delivering personalized video content for clients, including Forbes 1000 brands such as P&G, Walgreens, Honda and Priceline. We spoke with CTO Utpal Kalita to learn more about how he leads the company’s tech team.

How does your developer skillset translate to your leadership position?

With more than a decade of experience in ad tech, and almost 20 in software engineering, I am able to drive the strategic focus of the team, while ensuring Eyeview’s technology is as robust as possible. We are currently developing an industry-first video creative knowledge base — a proprietary database of video creative elements that correlate to individual consumer behavior. It’s important for me to help the broader team learn the delicate balance between this long-term innovation and short-term incremental improvements to our technology to help us get there.

What has been a challenge of engineering at scale and how have you overcome it?

The challenges of engineering at scale are always cost, performance and introducing change without breaking anything. Eyeview has developed a highly scalable cloud-based video technology that gives brands the ability to deliver thousands of creative variations tailored to reach specific target audiences, on any screen for the highest return on ad spend. Our VideoIQ platform, which utilizes AI machine learning algorithms that run on 500 TB of consumer-level and creative-driven performance data, evaluates 500,000 bid calls per second in real time. It is truly remarkable. The focus for overcoming our challenges and as we grow our technology comes down to our team of engineers — we have built and continue to build a team of innovators who write top-quality code and are always working to improve. When we launch something new, we prioritize A/B testing, simulators and feature release plans so we don't over-stimulate the system.

What's the most important lesson you've learned in leading your tech team?

I think the most important lesson I’ve learned from leading development teams is to give ownership to people and aligning their personal goals with company goals. When team members feel ownership and get to do what they like, they excel on a daily basis, and that leads to a culture of excellence. I’m also big on sharing the big picture — the longer-term product vision — with the team. This not only helps them feel connected, but also allows them to see the impact of the projects they’re working on today, and they often have feedback that improves our strategy. As a result, one of my team member grew from being an individual contributor to leading a team driving strategic technology innovation.

Photos via featured companies. 

Know more companies that deserve coverage? Let us know or tweet us @builtinnewyork.

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