From Dilbert to Lumberg: the evolution of an engineering leader

October 5, 2011

I’ve spent twenty years as an engineering director and vice president, managing and mentoring engineering leaders across Silicon Valley and international teams. Over the years, I’ve shipped many products, worked under some amazing leaders, and as a leader myself, written hundreds of performance reviews. During all this time, I’ve learned that great engineering leaders aren’t born; they are made. Or, to be more accurate, they seem to evolve, one step at a time, through four focus areas: technology, process, product and people.

Step 1: the Tech Guy

The Tech Guy

Most engineering leaders start here. Promoted recently from engineering, they typically focus on technology problem solving; after all, that’s what made them successful in the first place. Java or C++? MySQL or NoSQL? Threaded or evented? They tend to focus the organization around themselves and are central to every project. While this makes them an indispensable individual contributor, they don’t fully leverage their people and scale their organization.

Step 2: the Process Master

The Process Master

After seeing their team suffer and miss commitments, many engineering leaders begin to appreciate how the application of well defined software development processes can help to improve transparency, coordination, and early discovery and resolution of issues. Keywords like agile, waterfall, extreme programming, six sigma, and scrum start flying around. Teams who embrace new practices sometimes outshine and outproduce others. But sometimes, too much focus on process can result in a leader alienating his team; don’t forget the cover on your TPS report.

Step 3: the Product Guru

The Product Guru

The rare engineering manager will start to focus not only on how something gets built and shipped, but also on what is being shipped. Having a deep product understanding is an important trait in a good engineering leader. However, everybody has an opinion and many engineers fall into the trap of designing solutions in an inside-out manner. Better solutions result from listening to stakeholders through Sales, Business Development, Product Managers and Designers. Better yet, engineering leaders and their team should get out into the field to spend time directly with customers.

Step 4: the People Person

The People Person

The most experienced engineering managers know it’s all about the people. Unfortunately, many managers make the mistake of confusing the goal of “everybody is working effectively” with “everybody likes me”. Being buddies with your co-workers is great, but not enough to be an effective engineering leader.

Step 5: the Evolved Leader

The Evolved Leader

The best leaders manage to strike a delicate balance between technology, process, product and people. They teach best practices, remove impediments, and get out of the way. They focus on dream, fit and passion. They know that if you hire the right people and put those people in the right positions, they will figure out the right technology and process to get the job done. They have a deep understanding of motivation, and create an environment where engineers have autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Engineering Leadership at LinkedIn

LinkedIn prizes highly technical leaders at all engineering levels from manager to vice president and I feel fortunate to be a part of a leadership team that balances all four focus areas.

I get the chance to work on advancing our technology (designing active serving from multiple data centers, decoupling services, refactoring key systems, and implementing new frameworks and platforms), optimizing our processes (testing practices, code reviews, agile practices, streamlined release to production), and improving my product knowledge (we’re starting “follow me home” customer visits to keep our engineers attuned to how customers are using our products, and understand their unmet needs).

In addition, we get to set up our people for success (improving hiring practices, implementing a technical career ladder, expanding development centers around the world, organizing team learning).

And we’re hiring. LinkedIn is looking for software engineering leaders in multiple areas from evolving paid services, to mobile and platform APIs for third-party developers.

Visit the LinkedIn Careers Page to learn more