The 4 Obsessions of Hyper-Effective Engineering Leaders

I have occasionally helped companies recruit engineering leaders.  When I facilitate this process the first thing I want to see is the job description as it appears on the various recruiting sites.  Yikes!  Looks like you took all the skills from all the people on the team, rolled it up and said “Yep, the Engineering Director needs to know how to do all this” (c#, c++, java, hadoop, html5, NodeJs, AngularJs, Bigtable, Photoshop, CSS, Predictive Analytics, robotics, firmware engineering, chip design).

“Yes, but why?”

“Because the Engineering Director needs to understand what everybody else is doing.”

No.  The Engineering Director needs to understand what the business outcomes need to be, and create an outcome-centric environment for everyone to understand them and achieve them.  Meanwhile, he needs to be able to offer support, context, guidance, and resources to empower his teams to be successful.  Being a rockstar engineer and being a rockstar engineering manager require 2 different sets of skills.  There are very specific skills you should look for when hiring engineering leaders, and here they are.


Obsessed with recruiting top talent

It’s not about putting out a requisition and choosing the best resumes.  Its about creating and sustaining an external talent pipeline… before you have a requisition.  Peter Bugnattos, Strategic Sourcer at Lockheed Martin remarks,

“It isn’t about just finding resumes.  You have to understand the needs of both the candidates and your business and make the stars align when the timing is right.”

This is important because:

  • The people you want the most are not actively looking for a job.  The best way to get first dibs is to really understand who they are and what they’re passionate about
  • If you want until you “need someone” to start looking you are already too late.  By the time you need someone, the situation is dire, the recruiting effort is rushed, and the candidate is “late” the moment they walk in the door.
  • You get to vet candidates over a longer period of time.  Making a hiring decision based on a 30 minute interview (alone) is a horrendous way to make a hiring decision.

Unless they want to be stuck micromanaging and running projects themselves, your engineering leaders should be obsessed with recruiting top talent.



Obsessed with growing and developing existing talent

A huge pain point for many leaders is finding talent with the appropriate mix of skills and experience to make an immediate impact on the job.  Companies have been on unicorn hunting expeditions for a long time, and still have not been able to find the right candidates for the right roles at the right times.

There are a few solutions to this problem:

  • Grow your own talent.
  • Hire for the current challenge to be solved

Finding the balance between hiring external talent and developing internal talent is always difficult.  Unfortunately, most companies neglect to develop internal talent at all, which leaves them scrambling to fill leadership roles and makes those who are passed over frustrated.  Companies who are successful at growing talent create clear expectations for what it takes to reach “the next level” and create a transparent timeline to reach those goals.

Another problem that plagues companies is to find “unicorn leadership” that has the exact same blend of skills as the outgoing engineering director.  Instead, understand the current challenges that need to be solved, and hire people who have a track record of solving those problems in a major way.  It doesn’t matter that your last Director of Software Development was a math Ph.D. if the most pressing problem you need to solve has no relation to linear algebra.


Obsessed with creating teams of people who can get $h!t done

Its not just about people who are incredibly effective, its about finding people who are incredibly effective at the things you need them to be effective in…TOGETHER  How do you find people who can get $h!t done?  Create your job request as a list of outcomes and goals, rather than a list of daily activities and responsibilities.  Then, when you interview people, you will be looking for clues as to HOW people have accomplished similar goals in the past, and over what timeline.  As Yishan Wong, former CEO of Reddit says,

“The way to assess if someone is good at getting things done is to see what things they’ve gotten done.”

Then you need to hire leaders who understand how to create outcomes and goals then find people who have a track record of reaching similar outcomes in past roles.


Obsessed with building a learning culture

The ability of an organization to quickly learn and incorporate the lessons into execution is a class A competitive advantage.  Jack Welch postulates, “An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage”

Alex Weinstein, head of product development at Microsoft Live Labs, makes the argument,

“You should not hire for specific skills (e.g., Java, Hadoop, Oracle) but the ability to pick up new skills… a high velocity of learning is a core competency of the team”

Why the obsessions?

Because its very easy for engineering leaders to be pressured in to focusing on the wrong things.  Creating “obsessions” around the 4 critical levers of technology leadership ensures focus, creates a learning environment, and supports business outcomes.  Hire talent.  Develop teams of people who can get shit done.  Steer the ship by providing business context and constraints  Build a culture around continuous learning and improvement.  Understand where the strategic and the technical intersect.

Until Next Time,
Stay Agile My Friends

Download a Sample Director of Engineering Job Description


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