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What do the best engineers do better?

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I’m fascinated by this topic.

I recently found another thread on HN about it What do top engineers you know do that others don’t.

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As always for hacker news, there’s a feisty debate about what such character includes.

Here’s my take.

1. Tackle learning quickly

Whether it means getting up to speed on a new service that AWS has launched, building a new api for an application that has never been built before, or getting up to speed with a new platform. Learning is ongoing.

Top engineers can make this a seemless part of their daily routine. Getting going quickly with new concepts and technologies, means wading into the water at first, to gain the general lay of the land. Now you can talk intelligently about the features, limitations and challenges.

From there he or she can dive in quickly to the specific area required for the project, and move forward with that technology comfortably.

Related: How do I migrate my skills to the cloud?

2. Customer & product perspective

When building code, it’s easy to get mired in libraries, sorting algorithms, and API minutiae. And all of that is very important. But what are you building, and why are you building it?

Understanding your customer, what they do day-to-day is not always easy. It means using the product yourself, and also talking with sales teams regularly to hear what they are hearing.

Then pouring all this into your user stories. For top engineers it will inform their decisions, and help them communicate to product & project managers about what issues their encountering. Tradeoffs about features, coding, performance and technical debt can be better evaluated with more information.

Read: Is Fred Wilson honest about transparency?

3. Dig Deeper

Does your code run slowly? Have you tried to figure out why?

Is it related to:

o latency in production that doesn’t appear our your laptop
o untuned production database queries
o untuned connection pooling
o slow API calls
o weird kubernetes or orchestration issues
o web host issue with memory shortage
o web host issue with slow unoptimized code
o issues on the client side

Top engineers have seen applications slow down or fail in a myriad of ways. This allows them to imagine how a new application might be failing, and investigate those.

Related: What mistakes did you make when starting as a consultant?

4. Great communicators

In startups, your engineers need to communicate to many folks who don’t have an engineering background. Product & UI/UX folks probably are quite technical on their own. But what about sales teams who are dealing directly with customers? Or C-suite folks who watch the business bottom lines, but may not have the same low level technical understanding?

Great communicators can find the right metaphor to explain hurdles and holdups, technical debt, or the latest performance challenges. And explaining those in terms that resonate for others is incredibly valuable to the team and business velocity.

Related: Can Mailchimp fraudulently charge your credit card?

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Are career promotions like marriage… appealing until your first divorce?

surge pricing engineers

I was recently flipping through an interesting email list. It’s focused for tech leaders, managers & startup entrepreneurs. An HR team lead posted asking about “promotion paths” for engineers.

While I have an intuitive grasp of what engineers at those different levels look like, I’m having trouble making those concrete.

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It struck me how antiquated the whole “career ladder” concept is. Work one job for 20-30 years. It feels like the fairytale of dating that leads safely to marriage. It all seems like a wonderful plan until it fizzles out, employees get jaded, they start seeing the real money being paid elsewhere, and begin looking around.

1. Talent in short supply

I’m not a CTO.  I should preface with that bit.  I’m a consultant.  That said I’ve worked in the tech industry for 20 years, so I have a bit of an opinion here.

Going to meetups, startup industry & pitch events. They’re all like a feeding frenzy. There are more companies hiring now than I remember back in 1998 & 1999. It’s just crazy.

Angel List says 18,000 companies are hiring right now. What about Made In NYC? That shows 735 jobs. And of course there’s Ycombinator who is hiring April 2016, which posts every other month. It has 720 comments as of this writing.

Also: Why I don’t work with recruiters

2. Are salary jumps always larger through external promotion?

I’ve seen a pattern repeated over & over.  An outside firm offers more money & grabs the talent, or the talent gets restless, starts looking & finds they get a bigger bump in salary by leaving, than by internal promotions.  

I don’t know why this is, but it seems almost universal that salary jumps are larger from outside firms, than internally through promotion.  

Also: Why devops talent is so hard to find

3. Building a better ladder

There are great posts on engineering ladders like this one from Neo and also this one from RTR. Also take a look at this one at Artsy. And of course somebody has to go and put theirs up on github. 🙂

All the titles & internal shuffling in the world aren’t going to hide industry pay for long.  When an employee gets wise to their career & the skills marketplace, they’ll eventually learn that title does not equal compensation.

Related: How to hire a developer that doesn’t suck?

4. Building a better culture

In a pricey city like New York, the only thing that seems a counterweight to this is phenomenal culture, chance to build something cool & be surrounded by coworkers you love.  To be sure bouncing around you get less of this. Companies like Etsy comes to mind. According to glassdoor companies like Airbnb, Hubspot & facebook also fit the bill.

Read: 8 questions to ask an aws expert

5. Surge pricing for engineers?

Alternatively to better ladders & promotions, perhaps what Uber did for taxi driving would make sense for hiring engineers too. Let the freelancing phenomenon grow even bigger!

Perhaps we need surge pricing for engineers. That way the very best really do get rewarded the most. Let the marketplace work it’s magic.

Also: When you have to take the fall

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All CTO/CIO Hiring Startups

Hacking Job Search – Three Meaty Ideas

Also find the author on twitter @hullsean.

Demand for talented engineers has never been higher. It is in fact the dirty little secret of the startup industry, that there are simply not enough qualified folks to fill the positions.

What this means for you is that you have a lot of options. What it means for a hiring manager is that you will have to work even harder to find the right candidate. Just going to a recruiter isn’t enough. Use your network, go to meetups, follow Gary’s Guide daily.

Also check out our Mythical MySQL DBA piece where we talk about the shortage of DBAs and operations folks.

Further if you’ve dabbled in freelance or independent consulting, I wrote an interesting an in depth look at Why do people leave consulting. Understanding this can help avoid it in your own career, or avoid your resources leaving for better shores.

Find us on twitter @hullsean and linkedin where we share content and ideas everyday!

1. Build your reputation

As they say, your reputation precedes you. So start building it now. Fulltime or freelance, you want to be known.

Speaking, yes you can do it. Start with some small meetups, volunteer to speak on a topic. A ten person room is easier than 30, 50 or 100. Once you have a couple under your belt, fill out a CFP for Velocity, OSCon or some software developers conference. There are many.

Blog – if you’re not already doing so you should. Start with once a week. Comment on industry topics, controversial ideas, or engineering know-how. Prospects can look at this and learn a lot more than from a business card.

Write a book, yes you can. It may sound impossible, but the truth is that publishers are always looking for technical writers. Pick a topic near and dear to you. It’ll also give you endless material for your blog.

Go to meetups, you really need to be getting out there and networking. Get some Moo Business Cards and start working on your elevator pitch!

Social media – being active here helps your blog, and helps people find you. Twitter is a great place to do this. Interact with colleagues and startup founders, VCs and more. If you’re a hiring manager or CTO, you may find great programmers and devops this way.

We also wrote a more in-depth article Consulting and Freelance 101. It’s a three part guide with a lot of useful nugets.

Also take a look at our MySQL DBA Interview Guide which is as helpful to devops and DBAs as it is to managers hiring them!

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Above all else, build your network & your reputation. It will put you in front of more people as a person, not a commodity or a resume in a pile of hundreds.
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2. Qualify prospects

You definitely don’t want to take the first offer you get, and managers don’t want to hire the first candidate that comes along. You want two or three to choose from. Best way to do this is to have options.

If you’re a candidate, network or work through your colleagues. When you do get a lead, be sure you’re speaking to an economic buyer. If you’re not you’ll need to try to find that person who actually signs the checks. They are the ones who ultimately make the decision, so you want to sell yourself to them.

Get a Deposit – I know I know, if it’s your first freelance job, you don’t want to scare them off. Or maybe you do? The only prospects that would be scared off by this are ones who may not pay down the line. Dragging their feet with a deposit can also mean bureaucratic red tap, so be patient too.

Sara Horowitz has an excellent book Freelancers bible, we recommend you grab a copy right now!

Commodity You Are Not so don’t sell yourself as one. What do I mean? You are not an interchangeable part. You have special skills, you have personality, you have things that you’re particularly good at. These traits are what you need to focus on. The dime-a-dozen skills should sit more in the background.

You’ll also need to price and package your services. We talked about this in-depth in Consulting Essentials – Getting the Business.

We also think there is a reason Why Generalists are better at scaling the web.

3. Play the numbers game

For hiring managers this doesn’t mean working through recruiters that might be bringing subpar talent, it means networking through industry events, meetups, startup pitch and venture capital events. There are a few every single day in NYC and there’s no reason not to go to some of them.

For candidates, be eyeing a few different companies, and following up on more than one prospect. You should really think of this process as an integral and enjoyable part of your career, not a temporary in between stage. Networking doesn’t happen overnight, but from a regular process of meeting and engaging with colleagues over years and years in an industry.

At the end of the day hiring is a numbers game so you should play it as such. Keep searching, and always be watching the horizon.

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