3 Essential Engineering Leadership Skills to Know

What makes a great engineering leader? In part, it depends on the challenges they’re facing right now.

Written by Quinten Dol
Published on Apr. 23, 2021
3 Essential Engineering Leadership Skills to Know

Leading an engineering team requires a unique skill set — a combination of technical acuity, strategic thinking and people management. Plus, as ZipRecruiter CTO Boris Shimanovsky told Built In, engineering leaders also need an extra dose of humility to realize that despite having advanced so far in their careers, they are still capable of learning new things. 

Keen to learn more about the skills engineering leaders need to be successful, we straight-up asked engineering team leads at three tech companies straddling multiple industries and cities. To contextualize their responses — which range from Shinamovsky’s humility to Tim Chang of Fictiv’s “communicating clearly” to Ido Stern of Hibob’s process ownership — we also had them give us a snapshot of their work life right now, including recent challenges, current projects and new technology they’re watching closely. 


Boris Shimanovsky, CTO at ZipRecruiter

ziprecruiter cto

Boris Shimanovsky leads technology teams for ZipRecruiter, a Los Angeles-based employment marketplace that seeks to act as a personal recruiter for each individual user. The company last took outside investment back in 2018, helping to fund the development of new features and functionality like a recent AI-backed feature that tells candidates how their skills match against the requirements of any open role on its platform. 

Before joining ZipRecruiter last June, Shimanovsky led engineering teams at location data company Factual through last year’s merger with Foursquare. Among several other technology trends he’s currently watching, Shimanovsky said natural language processing and associated supportive infrastructure have opened some exciting possibilities for ZipRecruiter’s product. 


Biggest challenge in the last year: Our biggest challenge this past year was layering the many changes brought about by the pandemic on top of our ever-growing list of technical challenges. It was a tough year for many of our teammates with illness, anxiety, caring for loved ones, having young kids at home and a variety of other new challenges. While we had many fully remote people in engineering already, it was new to most. Helping people navigate these issues was our greatest challenge.


Current projects: We’re working on so many projects across all of our technical disciplines, but a goal shared by many of them is helping people find their next job as quickly, efficiently and safely as possible. At the heart of that are data and ML/AI systems which, when done well, provide a great experience and an efficient market for our job seekers and employers. Building an efficient market, providing people with great matches and protecting our job seekers all requires sophisticated data and ML/AI practices at scale. Making these systems elegant and maintainable with a focus on the velocity at which we improve is critical to our long-term success.


Anyone who thinks they know enough, both in terms of leadership practices and technology, is going to be left behind.”


Trends he’s tracking: We’re tracking many developments across the technology ecosystem, ranging from client-side and application frameworks to infrastructure and automation to deep learning and cutting-edge NLP practices. We have to recognize that, for example, many of our users are on mobile web, and as we look to expand — especially internationally — we have to understand the capabilities of their devices and build our client-side applications to be lightweight enough for them to have a good experience. On the other hand, deep learning and NLP have been advancing very rapidly over the last several years along with the ML/AI automation, monitoring and metrics ecosystem to manage it all. We’re watching things like language models, transformers, vector similarity search, feature stores and the ML ops toolchain so we can build and iterate sophisticated solutions quickly.


Most important skills for an engineering leader: The most important skill for an engineering leader to have is the humility and ability to keep learning. Anyone who thinks they know enough, both in terms of leadership practices and technology, is going to be left behind. The best engineers want to grow and so they need mentorship, right-sized challenges, and timely and constructive feedback to help them do that. Norms, recruiting practices, cloud and vendor ecosystems, preferred frameworks and just about everything else in the technology world are changing so fast that we all need to stay curious, flexible and motivated to learn and adapt. Our teammates deserve nothing less.


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Tim Chang, Head of Engineering at Fictiv

fictiv head of engineering

Fictiv’s online manufacturing ecosystem gives users the ability to design prototypes and parts on demand. Once users have uploaded a design on Fictiv’s platform — which provides instant pricing, feedback on manufacturability and automated order tracking — the technology then identifies the right production partner within its global network. The company has raised more than $92 million to date from investors like Accel, Bill Gates and Honeywell. 

Chang has led Fictiv’s engineering team since 2015, before which he oversaw shopping rewards app Shopkick through a $200 million acquisition in 2014. At the moment, Chang is preoccupied with expanding Fictiv’s range of services and rolling out new manufacturing technologies. 


Biggest challenge in the last year: Last year our biggest challenge was to make manufacturing transparent. We built a system that could show the progress of a part through its manufacturing lifecycle, including pictures of the parts coming off the machines. This is complex because it involves integrating information from multiple systems, some of which may be offline at various times. It’s proven to be incredibly valuable to our customers, giving them a window into the status of their parts as they’re built and shipped from various locations.


Current projects: We are expanding our service offerings into new manufacturing technologies.  Each new technology has its own subtleties, which requires us to evolve our architecture and automation. The work we do allows us to offer these new technologies in a scalable way that doesn’t require more humans to grow the business.


In order to scale your impact, you have to work through people you trust and who trust you.”


Trends he’s tracking: As a technology company in manufacturing, we pay attention to a wide spectrum of innovation areas including 3D printing, IoT, human augmentation, machine vision, autonomous vehicles, space travel, robotics and blockchain. But the technology trend with the most impact is artificial intelligence. We use AI to make our quoting and manufacturing feedback highly accurate and efficient, allowing us to provide more guided expertise on a wide variety of parts.


Most important skills for an engineering leader: Building relationships, thinking clearly and communicating clearly. For engineers and even engineering leaders, solving problems with systems and tools is what we are trained to do. But in order to scale your impact, you have to work through people you trust and who trust you. You have to frame problems and allow people to show you what they can do.


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Ido Stern, VP of Research and Development at Hibob

hibob VP of Research and Development

In Hibob’s estimation, legacy human resources software has not kept pace with changes in the workplace and the role of HR over the last decade. HR and people team leaders use its platform, known as bob, to manage everything from onboarding and team directories to performance reviews and compensation as well as more ephemeral aspects like employee experience and company culture. Hibob mainly serves mid-sized businesses and is built for scale, with a client list that includes the likes of Fiverr, DraftKings and Cloudinary. The company recently raised $70 million, bringing its total war chest to $124 million. 

Stern joined Hibob as a UI architect in the company’s early days, after working with a number of startups and tech companies in Israel. Now, as Hibob’s research and development leader, he’s building a new payroll system and assessing the shift left practice, in which tasks that were once performed sequentially are now carried out much earlier in the overall development process. 


Biggest challenge in the last year: We moved to an automated QA process, which means that we don’t have to conduct any manual testing before we release new features, updates or fixes. The challenge we had was to make sure this automated QA process did not in any way reduce the quality of the product while maintaining high throughput. As a result of this automated QA process, we’re now able to release 25 percent more updates and new features per day. 


Current projects: The new project we planned and are working on in 2021 is in the area of our product’s payroll hub, which will be included as a major feature in the bob platform. Having a payroll hub on bob will allow all our customers to have an internal, easy-to-use self-service integration to any payroll provider of their choice. The business impact is huge because it speeds up time-to-market in several markets that expect a people management tool to have a payroll integration as part of the full suite of services.


Ownership is the fuel for a good process.


Trends he’s tracking: The newest and most interesting tech trend I would like to share is “shift left.” It means searching and finding any security, infrastructure or privacy issues before they are even deployed by the development teams. As an example, a classic shift left candidate would be a typical AWS security scanning process that happens once the configuration is applied. However, in the shift left approach, security vulnerabilities will be caught in the development phase, much earlier than the AWS scan.


Most important skills for an engineering leader: An engineering leader must have the ability and desire to own a process and a task from A to Z. Ownership is the fuel for a good process. A true owner will learn new things about the process continuously, will be proactive to avoid mistakes and problems and will be the true evangelist for that process.

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