Why heading up an engineering team requires more than just technical skill

December 13, 2016

When it comes to taking the reins of a company's engineering team, technical knowledge is, of course, critical. But strong leadership skills are also essential to a team's success, especially in a field that often calls for hard work, long hours and time spent combing through code, looking for bugs.

We asked the leaders of three of Colorado tech’s most interesting engineering teams about how they approach leadership, technology and the future of their industries. Here's what they had to say:


Nima Keivan, CTO and co-founder

What technologies are playing the biggest roles at Canvas this year?

We’re building autonomous robots for the delivery of goods. Right now the focus is indoor delivery of goods.

Robotics is extremely multidisciplinary. For a system to be well oiled, there needs to be tight integration between software and hardware. We're building a team that’s quite multidisciplinary and integrated so that we can make sure these technologies don't have rough edges when they interact. There's innovation happening across a whole bunch of different categories, which is pretty unusual for the companies that are in the area. 

What upcoming tech project are you most proud of?

We’re building robots that can operate seamlessly in spaces where people are working. There's the safety aspect but there's also the behavioral aspect.

Upcoming products involve machine learning and computer vision, so they behave in a more context-dependent way when there are people around. It can be as simple as detecting where people are, or as complicated as gesture recognition and intent recognition to figure out what people are doing and behaving accordingly, so that you have a more seamless and safe experience with the robots.

How do you approach leadership?

We have this really amazing team of people who are domain experts in all the different disciplines you need to build such a system. For us, it's mainly giving people really big challenges that keep it interesting, and then getting out of the way. The second part to that is being available if people want help or guidance or even just to be a sounding board.

What trends do you see happening in your industry over the next three years? How is Canvas anticipating those trends and working toward them?

The hype surrounding autonomous driving totally speaks for itself. We’ll start to see a little bit more exposure of systems that aren’t so much in the limelight. Right now I think autonomous driving is taking a lot of the spotlight away, but that’s good because it's giving room for other applications to figure out what they mean in the discourse. We’re quietly working away, and the feedback we’ve received is really excellent.


Mike Davis, VP of innovation

What technologies are playing the biggest roles on your team this year?

Our main stack is and will continue to be built on .Net using C# and our front end web development uses ASP.Net with Angular as well as React/Redux. This coming year, we’ll see some new technologies making their way into our backend stack such as Spark and deep learning systems that can help and make use of the massive amounts of data that we have.

What are the biggest technology challenges you've faced in the past? How did you overcome them?

One of our biggest challenges has always been scale. We currently handle over five million requests per second in our real time systems and provide fine grain reporting on everything that happens within our system within 10 minutes of any event. The fast growth has been a challenge to deal with, but we consider our technical capabilities in the area of scale to be a strategic advantage over our competition.

How has your tech background contributed to your experiences at The Trade Desk?

I think that my background working at large corporations like Sun Microsystems and Microsoft helped me to understand large scale technology problems and how to bring products to market, while my experience at a number of startups really gave me an appreciation for moving fast and getting products into the hands of customers quickly and then iterating on those to make them best in class.

How do you approach leadership?

My goal is to lead by example; to constantly be pushing the envelope on what is possible and to be experimenting with ideas, getting them into the hands of customers to validate them and iterating quickly on feedback that we receive. I typically am in a place with indirect management over people so it's important to work to get people bought into the vision of what it is we’re trying to accomplish and the value that those things can bring to the company.

What trends do you see happening in your industry over the next three years? How is your team anticipating those trends and working toward them?

The convergence of all media being purchased through programmatic channels means that the scale of our systems will continue to grow at a faster rate. We believe that advertisers need a single place where they can plan, buy and validate advertising campaign success across all media, whether it is digital or traditional, desktop, mobile or TV, display, video, print or audio. We are building the omni channel system that allows brands and agencies to do just that.


Chris Rothe, CTO and co-founder

What technologies are playing the biggest roles at Red Canary this year?

This year was largely focused on using AWS to build a scalable platform that keeps pace with company growth. As of today, we process 300 hundred million processes per day and six billion events go through our stream processing engine. We’re expecting that to increase by four to five times in the next year. We have really been focused on putting in place a platform that optimizes processing and developer productivity. As a part of this, there are several core technologies that make platform the platform go: Kafka, Postgres, Redis, Ruby on Rails, and lots of ruby processing in the backend. There are a couple of areas that we need to be really good at for our processing to work from technology standpoint. 

What are the biggest technology challenges you have going into 2017?

We have one core problem: we have a lot of fricking data. And given the nature of the service we deliver, my job is to make sure we get all that data through the processing system as fast as possible. Any time an attacker can spend on one of our customers’ computers is too long. So we are always working to improve our system. 

What’s the development culture like at Red Canary?

We put everybody on the front lines. Everyone interacts with customers when needed. Everyone fixes operational bugs and feels that pain of our user community. And everyone pushes into production all the time, every day. At Red Canary you get into work, build, get it tested, push and it is there by the end of the day. To me, it is an exciting place to work. The work I am doing right this second will go out right now. It’s a fast paced and loose environment. We get a hell of a lot done and that is super motivating.

How would your team describe working for you?

Hopefully they don’t feel it is working for me, and we all work together. We try to set clear direction and make sure that people understand the problems that need to be solved, and then give them the freedom to solve them (with the support they need). The expectation is you are moving at as fast of a pace as you can and you recognize when something is done enough to ship. The great thing is everyone gets to work on things that mean something. 


Jay Bourland, SVP of engineering

How big is your team?

We have 85 people on our engineering team — when you throw in product management, we’re closer to 115.

How has your tech background contributed to your experiences at Alteryx?

I’ve worked in just about every role around the product lifecycle. Understanding how all the parts interact is a critical piece of growing an organization. I’ve also been fortunate to work with a lot of good leaders and on outstanding teams. I try to use those experiences to be a better leader.

How do you approach leadership?

Leadership is about enabling teams. I focus on creating teams and asking them to be the best they can be. I strongly believe the phrase that, “No one is smarter than everyone” and teams that hold each other accountable can achieve amazing things.

How would your team describe working for you?

I can best describe this in the form of two quotes: Once, when two people that had moved on to different roles were talking, one said, “Doesn’t the world move a lot slower now that you don’t work for Jay?” Another was checking in with me and said, “I really miss being part of a team.”

What are the biggest technology challenges you've faced in the past? How did you overcome them?

The biggest technology challenges occur when a vendor or supporting body drops support for a technology. Replacing and rewriting are very difficult tasks, as Joel Spolsky pointed out over 15 years ago. Next on the list is the amount of time and effort it takes a team to move from being familiar with a technology to being proficient with it. It is so easy to underestimate the time involved and the difference that progression makes.

What trends do you see happening in your industry over the next three years? How is your team anticipating those trends and working toward them?

We are in what Geoffrey Moore refers to as the “tornado” in self-serve data analytics. The growth in this market space is attracting a lot of interest from would-be competitors. Our mission to enable every worker in an enterprise will require us to continue our rapid pace of innovation while delivering nearly flawless execution.


Responses have been edited for clarity and length. Photos via featured companies and social media.

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