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What Are the Traits of Exceptional Engineering Leaders?

January 22, 2018 / by PlatoHQ

Gautam Prabhu, Vice President of Engineering at Zendesk, spoke about the traits of exceptional engineering leaders at the Plato event hosted on August 9, 2017.

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Engineering leadership, as a discipline, requires a multitude of outstanding personal traits, skills, and qualities. To succeed, you need to begin as an engineer, and spend a considerable time doing just tech functions. A good tech background is a must, as tech leadership (including management roles) is not possible with just a management background.

Engineering management is a craft, not something you can learn step by step

Engineering leadership is viewed by many — including engineers and engineering managers and even VPs and other top managers — as a science, something that can be taught through reading books, practical demonstrations, and case studies. But Gautam’s experience is that it’s more like a craft — there is more than one way to do it, there are a lot of solutions to these problems. In the field of engineering leadership, managers don’t need to know much outside of tech knowledge, and good leadership traits can be developed over time.

The long list of good engineering traits

Gautam has compiled a long list of good engineering traits. The list has been updated since his very first days as an engineering leader, and keeps expanding. According to him, his list is so long now, no human would be able to exhibit all these traits.

For a firm, it is important to have a solid system of classification and evaluation of external applicants for tech leader roles. Quality engineering and tech leaders are relatively scarce on the job market, and companies that are rapidly growing (such as startups) see that their future growth may be hindered by the lack of appropriate managing staff.

That’s why strong leaders sometimes need to be sourced from outside the company. However, being ready to hire someone with a strong engineering management background is not a guarantee. Just because someone did well in a previous job doesn’t automatically guarantee that he or she will perform equally well in your company and be a natural fit. That’s why it’s necessary to create a system of requirements which find a person who may not be the best for the role or the most experienced, but the one whose experience is the most suitable for you.

Zendesk’s initial idea was to create an ownership-based mentality instead of a project-based one, and divide teams into sub-teams, so that the sub-team leaders have virtual ownership over the portfolio of things their teams need to get done. These leaders were a blend of technical leads and engineering managers, and Gautam thought this way, his company could have both the technical leadership and control over the teams, which were structurally flawed.

Today, Zendesk employs a “two-track” system, where engineers can choose between becoming tech leads and managers. This also means there need to be two sets of criteria to identify tech leaders and future engineering managers.

Two basic requirements that an engineering manager should have

On the top of all the qualifications a good engineering leader should have, there are two basic, cornerstone requirements: the ability to make good decisions and enjoy working with people. While perfect hiring decisions are very rare, there is a need to simply make a decision which leads to a successful outcome. A great decision-maker should make the best choice with the information on hand. The decision-making process is based on overcoming limitations arising from lack of information.

Working with people is a daily environmental consideration for most IT jobs. Software development is more team-based than ever before, and social skills are becoming increasingly important, even for individual contributors. To contribute well to the company on a tech level, today’s engineer needs to be a team player from the very beginning and on every job. Being a team player is generally a requirement in order to be eligible for a promotion. Also, if you don’t enjoy communicating with your leadership, the interactions will be draining, and you won’t have a successful outcome. This applies to both tracks.

There are a few other traits to consider for determining strong leaders. One of these is a person’s ability to cope with problems which most other people would run away from. For example, consumers can be unhappy with a product, which would make the team equally unhappy, but someone needs to step up and do something about it. The person who steps up to the plate is usually someone who’d be a great candidate for an engineering leader.

Another major trait is a sense for self-reflection. To improve one’s leadership competencies, one needs to continuously revise their own work, knowledge, decisions, and achievements. This can help significantly with ambiguous situations where information is not readily available. A human decision needs a fair human approach.

Every company needs to make a list of desirable traits that an engineering leader should possess. The list may or may not be the same as Gautam’s, but it should reflect the true needs of the company.

“Engineering leadership is more of a craft, and that implies to me that there is more than one way to do it, there’s lots of solutions to these problems.”

Watch Gautam’s full presentation below. And be sure to check out our YouTube channel for the rest of the video content from the event!



Topics: Keynote


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