Becoming a successful engineer: 3 mindsets to adopt

While there’s no clear-cut formula to every individual’s recipe for career success, Kevin Lester (Head of Engineering) and Manor Lev-Tov (VP of Data Science) agree that there are common behaviors that lay the foundation for becoming a successful engineer. These mindsets lead to a rewarding experience for both the engineer personally and the larger business.

We’ve highlighted the three overlying principles that Kevin and Manor discussed as playing a key role en route to becoming a successful software engineer.

1. Never stop learning

“The thing that separates good and great engineers is largely a hunger to learn”
— Manor Lev-Tov.

Manor spent years reading blogs, books, conducting projects, taking courses, and seizing every opportunity to continuously learn. Kevin echoed his thinking: “When I’m interviewing people, I want to see that they love what they do […] there should be tinkering and learning on the side that demonstrates a passion for their work. Not every single job will play into your intellectual curiosity, so filling in those gaps yourself is what distinguishes a great engineer and someone I’d like to work on my team.” Like any other career, it’s common for engineers to face pitfalls, but those who find a way to supplement those roadblocks with a desire to learn will reap the rewards.

Some recommended readings:

Pro tip: When looking for academic conferences, look at where papers were published and see if they were published in conjunction with conferences. That way, you’ll know where to find engaging thought leadership that matches your interests.

Dedication to learning is a two-way street: hiring managers like Manor and Kevin look for it in those they recruit, but as an engineer, you should also ask the companies you apply to about their stance and support options for continuing your learning. “At AlphaSights, one of the core skills in our skills matrix is for our senior engineers/managers to share their knowledge and experience with junior engineers”, said Kevin, who highlighted the role that our firm’s ethos — unlocking knowledge to power progress — plays in fostering a strong learning culture for its engineering team and beyond.

Learning comes in countless forms, from reading a whitepaper, to watching a video tutorial, to taking online courses (MOOCs) at high-quality sites such as Coursera and Edx. On the fun side, Kevin recently used a Machine Learning model from Washington University that allowed individuals to appear as a hologram in virtual meetings, repurposed it to fit his goals, and sent it back to the University:

Kevin Lester

2. Embrace Failure

Manor’s current role is helping his coworkers shortcut failures, but he emphasized the value of failing fast early on in his career. More important, is the humility engineers need to have in the face of failure: “When I’m looking for who to hire, I typically look for someone who’s open to being wrong, is eager to learn from their mistakes, and won’t put others down when they fail.”

Hiring people based on their energy was one of Manor’s first learnings when he became a leader — and one he still maintains for his team strategy today. “Experiencing failure through an ‘I’m the smartest person in the room’ lens has a negative influence on team culture,” he pointed out. Failing fast allows an engineer to eliminate wrong hypotheses as quickly as possible with no ego attached, and get into a position to iteratively make things better over shorter periods of time.

“A lot of my skills were born out of frustration,” Kevin reminisced. From his first introduction to computer science (fiddling on LogoWriter), Kevin learned that great engineers embrace failure as a means to understand how to communicate with a computer. “It’s much less training the computer to tell you what to do — instead, you need to develop the muscles that help you think the way a computer does.”

Veering your reaction away from “the computer isn’t doing what I want” provides the humility necessary to fail fast and re-approach a problem from a computer’s perspective. Refusing to accept that hours of effort aren’t coming to fruition and digging deep to figure out how to get a program to work plays a vital role in learning the ins and outs for future success.

“Accept the unknowns in front of you and dive in to discover new grounds.”
— Kevin Lester

3. Ask ‘why’

Great engineers leave things better than when they found them. To do so, Kevin suggests constantly asking: “Why? Why are we doing this?” These questions shouldn’t be taken with offense, but instead as one that seeks to uncover value. Understanding why something is important, and who it’s important for, allows you to take a more measured approach when creating a solution to a problem, or improving an outdated process.

Manor, for example, spent several years (before AlphaSights) with lots and lots of data at his hands and always believed that it could unlock more value than it was currently used for. It was important for him to ask “Who’s looking at the data, what’s their end goal, and why would that provide value?”

Manor cautions engineers and data scientists to beware of patterns that do not exist in their quest to answer the ‘why’ and find value in a product. Finding and building patterns within the data requires a lot of communication with stakeholders. That means preparing lots of questions for kick-off meetings, getting progress reports, and continuously probing into “what the underlying needs are, not the asks”. To dig into the needs, Manor is a huge fan of observing people’s work in action, as that offers insights into subtle nuances and the underlying pain points that the stakeholder may not even see.

Once you figure out the best approach — likely preceded by a series of failures and new learnings — you can leave your engineering project better than you found it. Asking why helps bridge our other two principles together — creating a cyclical environment to learn, fail, and then learn again. This type of environment creates a path for great engineering and a sense of pride and satisfaction for the work you do.

“Everything you touch as an engineer ends up with your stamp on it,” says Kevin. “If you stamp your face on something, the final product should make you proud and provide value to the end-user. Ask yourself once you’re done, ‘am I proud of this?’

Future blogs in this series will cover tips for successfully navigating the application process for engineering positions and the shift from an individual contributor engineer to an engineering manager. Interested in learning more from Kevin and Manor? Work with them by applying to be an AlphaSights engineer here.

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