What makes a top-tier engineer?

There’s a famous joke in engineering: “There are only two hard problems in computer science: cache invalidation, naming things, and off-by-one errors”.

For many companies, they’d add “hiring” (and consequently off-by-twooo errors). Hiring talent usually means carefully evaluating the technical skill of a candidate. This is reasonable because engineers need to use those skills on a daily basis, so they correlate well with performance post-hire.

At Leanplum, one of our goals is to hire top-tier talent. But unexpectedly, we’ve discovered that the strongest indicators for top candidates aren’t actually technical. We’ve been most impressed by engineers who are driven to learn, fueled by personal growth, and foster an environment to help others succeed. A top-tier engineer is one who excels within a team and actively makes it better.

There’s been surprising research into what makes a team tick well. In 2012, Google kicked off an internal study called Project Aristotle. This swept up feedback from over 180+ teams and 200+ individuals. They identified 5 key traits that contributed to happy, effective teams:

1. Psychological Safety: We push ahead and take risks, even if there’s a chance we’ll fail.
2. Dependability: We can count on each other to commit to timelines and follow through.
3. Structure & Clarity: Each of us has clear plans, goals, and strengths that others understand.
4. Meaning: Each of us believes the work we’re doing is important, in different ways.
5. Impact: We create meaningful change through our work, and we can proudly point to it.

Our interview process is tailored for the same values. When we come together to discuss a potential hire, we go over a slew of technical insights from which we expect them to draw.

But more importantly, we focus on soft skills: traits like communication, empathy, and humility. These are the same traits that contribute to a successful, positive team environment. At Leanplum, we offer the mentorship and teamwork needed to help grow technical skills. Personalities are a little less flexible.

Over time, we realized that each of the effective traits of a team is mirrored through a parallel individual characteristic. Below, in question format:

1. Psychological Safety: When I’m with a close friend, can I be fully open with them? Am I comfortable doing something outside of what is ‘normal’ for me? Can I call out their mistakes, and easily forgive them?
2. Dependability: Do I respect others’ time and plans? Do I respect my own?
3. Structure & Clarity: What do I want to personally achieve in one year? What are my medium and long-term (five year) goals?
4. Meaning: What do I value in my life? How have I achieved that in the past?
5. Impact: How do I affect the world around me? What do I do that touches the lives of others?

As we’ve grown, these traits have been the bedrock on which our engineering culture continuously refines itself. One way we’ve matured is through developing a strong culture of ownership, where both teams and individuals are proud of the work that they do and strive for constant improvement.

For front-end products, our top priority is ensuring we present a delightful user interface — one that understands a user’s needs and makes itself easy to use. On the backend/infra side, we apply the same philosophy to our postmortems. Rather than point fingers, we refocus on what went wrong and how to insulate ourselves from the same issue in the future.

This guiding direction has positively rippled into other areas as well. It’s simpler to be honest about feedback when the focus is on a product instead of an individual. And when that shift in focus happens, people naturally take on the projects they’re interested in and best at. An effective team is both happy and reliable.

The results have been staggeringly successful. Our engineering retention rate is close to 90%, and we’ve grown the team by 400% in the past 2 years alone. As a company, we recently raised a $29 million C round with Canaan Partners and plan to spend a good chunk of that hiring many more top-tier engineers.

We’d love to share our culture with you. If you’re a top-tier engineer, visit our page. Or, you can reach out to me personally to ask any questions at kevin@leanplum.com.