Principles for good engineering leadership

In our recent post about how we do engineering leadership here at HubSpot, we shared our philosophy about what engineering leaders should focus on. 

We encourage our engineering leaders to be primarily product-focused (and, to a somewhat lesser degree, people-focused) rather than spending most of their time driving a process or managing people. This kind of leadership stands in stark contrast to the kinds of leaders who primarily care about administering and health-checking teams, or are on the hook for making sure their employees did the things they were supposed to do. 

But expecting our leaders to focus on both product and people isn’t easy. As part of our process to expand our engineering leadership, both by promoting internally and hiring externally, we wanted to identify and distill the leadership qualities that we’ve found to be most effective. By focusing on these seven principles, leaders can make sure they’re building healthy teams and great software.

What we’ve outlined below certainly isn’t a set of explicit rules or a checklist of behaviors. Rather, we’ve found success in aligning our leadership efforts towards a specific style and mission, while leaving space for leaders to interpret and play to their strengths.

We think leaders should:

1. Build trust, respect, and empathy, and use that as a base to deliver radical candor.

We’re big on Radical Candor here at HubSpot. We believe it’s the best way to help each other learn and grow. Radical candor means that you give the people you manage guidance (both in praise and in criticism) directly. And you do it directly, and quickly, because you care about them as people. You must deliver that guidance from a base of trust and respect, because if you don’t, your praise can feel insincere and your criticism can feel aggressive. 

When you take the time to build that base in an authentic way, the people who work for and around you are much more likely to feel like you’re a strong supporting character in their careers. That support will make you considerably more likely to get your message across. 

2. Foster a sense of team and mission.

HubSpotters consistently rank their team and co-workers as their favorite thing about working at HubSpot. This doesn’t happen by accident; building strong teams with cohesive social bonds takes a massive amount of forethought and work. But that forethought and work is an integral part of leading a team, because having strong teams is paramount to our success as a company. Evidence has shown time and time again that teams who work well together are happier, more productive, and retain better.

But building a strong team isn’t enough, because a team without a mission is like a sailboat without a mast. Leaders should be able to instill a strong sense of mission in their teams, and those missions should be feasible and compelling. A team’s mission is like a north star — it can keep that team moving in the same direction, together.

3. Have strong working relationships across the organization, from the tech leads and the individual contributors who report to them, to the product managers and designers their reports work with, to their peers & the executive team.

As our organization becomes increasingly complex, cross-team collaboration becomes more and more of a challenge. Leaders help act as the connective tissue between teams, and build relationships that help them reach across organizations in order to deliver results. Good leaders will have a high-level overview and a deep understanding of the work going on around them so that they can connect people who need to be connected and break down silos.

4. Understand our customer and business needs.

We think engineering leaders should be active participants in developing our product strategy, because our main goal as a team is to deliver products that solve real needs for our customers. Leaders should deeply understand the customer — their needs, pain points, and motivations — because it’s hard to guide a team when you don’t thoroughly understand who you’re solving for and why. 

Furthermore, engineering leaders have counterparts in Product and Design, and without product context, it’s difficult to relate to those counterparts and to prioritize work effectively. If you don’t know how important a new feature will be to customers, it’s hard to determine whether refactoring part of the codebase is more important. Good leaders will have enough context to understand the impact of these tradeoffs.

5. Understand how we build and why.

We want leaders to deeply understand our technical strategy primarily because it allows them to develop empathy for the teams and the problems they’re solving. That empathy helps them understand the technological headwinds that might make a team’s mission more difficult, or the constraints that could turn a viable solution into an inviable one. Understanding how things are built lets leaders identify how and when to coordinate with other teams, and helps them effectively guide their teams in tackling technical challenges.

This means that leaders should also cultivate a gut feeling about what’s simple and what’s complex, or when we should move quickly and invest in the product and when we should slow down and take the time to invest in the platform. Leaders can then better advise teams to undertake long-term work when they’re on the right path, and encourage teams to move quickly when they’re still figuring out the best path forward. Developing that deep understanding is the best way leaders can help their teams grow to do the same.

6. Represent our mission and culture to candidates.

Recruiting is integral to our growth, and leaders can make a big impact when it comes to recruiting and hiring the next generations of builders and leaders. During the hiring process, candidates should have access to the leaders they’ll be working with every day, and accordingly, those leaders should be adept at conveying our culture and values. That scope of access is a big advantage in an extremely competitive hiring market.

7. Get team members and candidates excited to take on new challenges.

Because we’re growing, and quickly, our teams are constantly shifting and changing as new employees join and new missions and teams are spun up. Leaders need to embrace this change. And because leaders have a better overview of what’s in the works, they should always be looking for opportunities for their team members to take on new challenges and grow.

This means that they need to know the people on their team deeply, so that they have a good sense of what opportunities will be a good match for someone’s skills and interests. And when those opportunities arise, they need to be able to encourage their reports to try new and sometimes difficult things.

 

The principles outlined above are aspirational — no one is a perfect leader, and no one gets leadership right all the time — but we hope these principles will help our leaders guide their teams to deliver great software to our customers, and help us build a company where the people who create that software enjoy doing it.

If you’re an engineering leader who’s excited about these principles, and thinks they fit your leadership style? We’d love for you to get in touch — we’re hiring. Or, if you’d like to learn more about our team and how we build software, check it out.

Whitney Sorenson

Written by Whitney Sorenson

Whitney is HubSpot's Chief Architect.

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