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6 Steps to Grow Into A Lead Engineer At FAANGby@shilpi
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6 Steps to Grow Into A Lead Engineer At FAANG

by Shilpi GuptaMay 13th, 2020
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Shilpi Gupta is the founder of Edizeven - a job site for restaurants. Gupta grew from an entry-level engineer to a lead engineer in one of the FAANG companies. She last worked at Amazon. Gupta: How do you go from starting fresh as a junior engineer to leading a team in say 5 years? Here’s a highly opinionated guide for growth based on my experience. She says: "Shut up and deliver. You are not a tech lead yet, but you want to be someone everyone wants on the team"

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If you are a software engineer in one of the FAANG companies or similar you are probably one among the thousands of engineers  at the company. How do you go from starting fresh as a junior engineer to leading a team in say 5 years?

I grew from an entry-level engineer to a lead engineer in one of the FAANG companies. Here’s a highly opinionated guide for growth based on my experience.

1.       Learn your company’s and your team’s tech stack

 As someone fresh out of college, you may not get to choose the team you end up on. But no matter what team you’ve joined, there’s a lot of fundamentals about your company’s tech stack you need to pick up on.

Proactively seek out 1:1 time with the current tech leads, senior engineers on your team and seek to understand common operations in the tech stack: e.g. What are the best practices for coding, testing, deployments, monitoring, alarming, operations?

Go to these 1:1s extremely prepared having read internal documentation lest your meeting appears as a waste of time for the lead.

2.       Shut up and Deliver

As a high achiever, you’re probably opinionated. Voicing your opinions and having them heard may seem like an easy path to get recognized.

DON’T!

For now, just shut up and deliver! You work on whatever is assigned to you. You do not argue (especially in code reviews. Just do what’s being told. Make sure you understand the reasons). Your core focus is delivery. You deliver consistently with quality. You are not a tech lead yet, but you want to be someone everyone wants on the team.

I call this the “Underdog phase”. I expect this phase to last one to two years.

3.       Pick a business line which is close enough to the company's leadership team

This is the most critical phase in your 5-year plan of becoming a well-respected tech lead. You will pick your next team.

Most large companies have hundreds of business lines in operation. How to choose? It helps to identify which of these two categories they belong to:

The Cool New Stuff: Your leadership likely sees a handful of new businesses as bold bets. They usually will have an aha-factor for customers (think Amazon Alexa before it was released, or Google Glass before being released). These businesses generally begin as a secret project and engineers flock to them. They have too many eyes on them and will already have strong engineers on board.

AVOID these for now.

Next Year’s Growth Drivers: The next category of business lines are ones that are new, but already proven in the market. There’s a clear demand story. They’re about to scale, but their backing technology stack likely won’t. Think AWS in 2006 or Prime Video in 2011 or Amazon Fashion in 2015. A defining characteristic of these businesses is that they’ll likely have 50-100 people (including both tech/non-tech) in their organization with a solid visionary leader at the top.

These are the kinds of businesses to pick. Identify 2-3 such organizations and talk to multiple people: engineers, managers and directors to understand  the long-term vision. Make sure the leaders you talk to have been in the organization for a while and let them know you’re looking to grow into a lead position. This will help them identify the right projects for you.

When the company expects growth and revenue from a business line, roadblocks are constantly cleared. Things need to move fast, but there aren’t enough people yet to run the ship. You, my dear, have the stage set for you.

4.        Be in the chaos 

A second important piece of choosing a business line is to also choose the right sub-team to join. A 50-100 people  business line will have between 6-10 engineering teams. So, which sub-team to join?

My advice? Pick the most chaotic team that is also in the critical path to success. Here’s why:

If the team is not in the critical path, you are not a critical resource for the ship to sail. Chaotic because you need a space which needs fixing.

Remember, this is a risk.  In the critical path, you have a great responsibility to deliver the right things at the right time. One bad deliverable will make people lose trust. So double, triple check your work with experienced campaigners in the business.

You are now set up to help your team navigate from a chaotic situation to success. Pick a couple of ambiguous projects in this new team and deliver. After these you will begin to emerge as a subject-matter expert.

5.       Do the dirty work

Being in chaos is challenging.   Most people cannot handle the pressure, but you’ve managed to become a subject-matter expert. However, it is one thing to be perceived as a leader by your manager and completely another to be respected by your peers and juniors.

Here is one trick that worked for me to gain their respect:

Do the dirty work!

This should be for a high impact project  the business needs, but no engineer wants to do it.

As an example, from my personal experience, one of the projects I took was to migrate from an old content management system to a new one to avoid scalability issues. This was not technically challenging. 90% of the work was manual data migration with targeted scripts to migrate data and then hand fixing various corner cases – extremely boring, error prone, but had to be done. It took me 4 months to slowly migrate all the data. 6 years later however, this work is still paying dividends. People still applaud this migration.

Moral of the story? –  When you deliver on a good tech project people remember your work. When you deliver an extremely boring, tiring, but high impact project, people remember YOU.

6.       Take the hot seat 

You learn quickly, you deliver under pressure. You don’t shy away from  tedious projects. Your team loves you. You are ready to take the hot seat. You are ready to lead a big multi-team, multi-engineer project.

You are already seen as a leader in your immediate team and 1-2 sister teams. But not yet amongst your senior management (think skip levels or higher). But you are ready for it.

If you followed step 3-5 you are already in a space which has been moving fast. The business has learnt a lot and realized that an overhaul is needed to continue growth. At this point, you’ve been in this space for a year or two and understand it well. You’re perceived as a leader by your manager, his peers, as well as your peers. You’re the right choice in their eyes to drive the much needed overhaul. So, take the hot seat, run the show and deliver strong!

And you will be that tech leader which everyone wants to be!

In the journey, make sure you’ve mentored a few and cloned yourself. You are preparing your army of people. You need them for your next phase.