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Exceptional Engineers

At InVision, we’re building an amazing company and delivering fantastic products that our customers love. It turns out that in order to build an amazing company with fantastic products, you need exceptional engineers. At InVision, we are growing our engineering organization by first hiring people with the skills, drive, and desire to build great tools for digital product design; and then by helping them increase their skills and effectiveness through coaching, mentoring, and training opportunities.

So how do we identify exceptional engineers? In this post, I outline a set of common traits shared by exceptional engineers:

Exceptional Engineers

Technically Deep. Exceptional engineers are technically deep and technically broad. Even when working in a small area of the stack, the exceptional engineer understands how the whole stack works and she understands the whole process from idea to design to architecture to tests to coding to deployment to production. Exceptional engineers are always driven to follow a problem across all kinds of boundaries. Put another way, the exceptional engineer doesn’t wait for others to provide something: she finds a way, builds a way, finagles a way to satisfy her curiosity to know the full story.

Driven by Results. Exceptional engineers are driven by results: they want to get their work in the hands of customers, today. The exceptional engineer prides himself on delivering great work that is right in line with the business priorities; his currency of merit is production code and thus he is driven to show his ideas in action rather than talk about what he could do in the future. The exceptional engineer doesn’t let organizational boundaries stop him from getting things done because of his bulldogged tenacity to deliver. His motto is “never give up, never surrender.”

Fanatically Frugal. Exceptional engineers are deliberately frugal in their use of time and resources. The exceptional engineer knows that in a start-up, time is the most valuable resource, the only resource that we cannot get more of, and thus she doesn’t waste any of it. Biased to action instead of meetings, biased to quicker solutions instead of perfect ones, biased to technical solutions that are less complex (and thus faster), the exceptional engineer is always focused on how quickly and efficiently she can deliver results.

Team Multipliers. Exceptional engineers make everyone better: they lift the skills and expertise of those around them. An exceptional engineer is someone that others want to work with because although he’s forceful about his opinions, he’s not a jerk about them and you go away from an interaction knowing something more than you did before. The exceptional engineer is a multiplier, not just adding his skills to the group but multiplying the value of everyone in the group through his positive, constructive, can-do attitude; he is a technical multiplier through frameworks and solutions that make the whole company better and faster; he is a group multiplier by making estimates and commitments because he knows that everything in interdependent. The exceptional engineer does not compromise for the sake of social cohesion but once a decision is made, he commits wholeheartedly. The exceptional engineer works well individually or in a team because he is flexible: he doesn’t have to be a star, and as a result, he often is one.

Continuous Learners. Exceptional engineers are completely confident in their ability to learn anything and they are constantly doing so. The exceptional engineer is driven to self improvement and you will always find her learning something new. She is a voracious but discriminatory reader so that she balances continuous self-improvement against constantly jumping to the next shiny thing. The exceptional engineer is open to feedback and eminently coachable; she is constantly curious about all of the dimensions of a problem.

Want the Hard Problems. Exceptional engineers want to take on the hardest, most important problems. The exceptional engineer wants to be working on challenging interconnected problems; if something is considered impossible, that’s where you will find the exceptional engineers gathered looking for solutions. The exceptional engineer wants to be given the degrees of freedom to make important decisions and he knows that those are found around the hard problems. Hard problems are often accompanied by many failures before success; he achieves the success because those failures really bug him, really get under his skin, and he can’t stop until he’s solved them. The exceptional engineer wants the hard problems that may take a long time (months, a year) to solve and he knows how to approach those problems incrementally until they are completed.

Are Right, A Lot. Exceptional engineers are not perfect, they make mistakes like the rest of us, but they are right, not just more often than not, but a lot more often than not. The systems they build are robust, not brittle; flexible, not rigid; reliable, scalable, maintainable, and elegant. The exceptional engineer has strong business judgment and good instincts. She seeks diverse perspectives and works to disconfirm her beliefs so as to be right more often. She is opinionated but not dogmatic. As a result of being right a lot, she helps with convergence rather than creating divergence.

Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post about how we provide useful feedback to our engineers to help them be exceptional!

Some Further Reading

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