With the rise of the DevOps movement, which in my personal experience has entailed a blend of programming and system administration, I’ve worked with colleagues in new hybrid careers combining essential business and technological skills to present a diverse field of opportunities. One such rising career is that of the entrepreneurial engineer.
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“To be a successful entrepreneurial engineer, you must wear two hats: one with a deep technical focus and the other focused on the goals of the business,” said Loren Goodman, CTO and co-founder of InRule Technology. “This allows you to make decisions in real-time leveraging your understanding of diminishing returns on both fronts. The why, the what and the how are traditionally separated, and small changes to any part can have exaggerated effects on the others. You bring this thinking together—for example, knowing that a feature can be done in a fraction of the time if a small part was removed from scope and also knowing that that part is not core to the business need.”
Goodman stressed that entrepreneurial engineers must be curious about the bigger picture and be unafraid to take on challenging problems. They must also be success-focused, with a relentless passion for achieving the best solution to difficult problems, no matter how unrealistic things might seem. Finally, he said, a successful entrepreneurial engineer must be scrappy: “You are going to have to be comfortable working without all the necessary resources for a long time while still staying focused on your objectives.”
As Commit Engineering Co-Founder Beier Cai puts it, successful entrepreneurial engineers possess creative problem-solving skills, an engineer’s mindset and a toolkit of experience based on agile practices, multi-tasking and self-drive.
Mark Kinsella, VP of engineering at Opendoor, emphasized that seeing the company’s long-term vision, understanding the complexities of business problems and customer needs and building solutions to fix those problems are the core goals of the entrepreneurial engineer. He pointed to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, co-founders of Google, for example.
“One thing I’ve seen at many high-growth startups is too many projects being simultaneously worked on with a lack of focus. This can result in engineers working on individual projects in the hope of increasing throughput. But what actually happens is engineers are building projects in silos, not learning from each other, and typically outputting lower-quality code,”Kinsella said.
Kinsella stressed the need for entrepreneurial engineers to work effectively across teams and disciplines, from product and design teams to operations and executive teams to form a consensus and plan to address the problems that need to be solved. He observed that truly successful entrepreneurial engineers thrive in environments where they can learn from and share their experience with their teams and the engineering community around them. “They have a growth mindset; they don’t get blocked by failures. They learn from failures and always continue to push forward,” he said.
There is a definite benefit to both the business and the engineer alike. The entrepreneurial engineers I have worked with have felt empowered and take pride in their work. That in turn benefits the customer, Kinsella said. “At Opendoor, we intentionally structure our teams to operate like startups. Our teams run as independently as possible toward our defined business metrics. And everyone is responsible for making business-critical decisions, meaning everyone is held accountable,” he said.
He cited an example of entrepreneurial engineering in action. “Data is the heart of what we do, and we need to ensure we get it right. A few years ago, a couple of our engineers were working on integrating with a new multiple listing service to ingest home sales data. There were many edge cases, and we were struggling to get it right. So, the engineers traveled to the customers and shadowed the [real estate agents] who were inputting the MLS data. They were using Microsoft Access to make edits and additions to a central database, which we then ingested via a web API. This customer-first mindset allowed the engineers to better understand why they were seeing weird edge-cases and think about how to be resilient handling these issues going forward.”
Kinsella and I agreed that one of the top traits we’ve seen in the entrepreneurial engineer is flexibility, an especially critical skill for those involved with high-growth startups where there might be less structure and a faster pace. “Entrepreneurial engineers learn how to switch gears to prioritize what’s most important—and they know how to help their teams prioritize where they should be spending their time as well. Honing this chameleon-like ability will take an engineer far in their career,” Kinsella said.