Forward Deployed Engineer

One Title Fits All

Laura M Chevalier
Mar 27, 2019 · 8 min read

If you could describe what a Forward Deployed Engineer does, or even honestly say that you’d heard of the role before today, you would merit a high five and a suspecting “why did you know that?”. As a Forward Deployed Engineer (FDE), I’m not even sure I could give an accurate description of what an FDE does. Still, I’ve been asked what I do for a living enough times over the past year that I’ve honed an answer I think is sufficiently ambiguous to be accurate: A Forward Deployed Engineer is a software/data engineer whose primary focus is on customer success. If you want to take a deeper dive into the role — maybe you’re considering adding the role at your company, or you’re applying to be an FDE — keep reading! As an FDE at ActionIQ, I can remove some ambiguity from the title and answer some questions using my own experience: what does an FDE do, what skills do they need to have, and what skills do they acquire along the way?

For context, ActionIQ is an Enterprise Customer Data Platform for marketers, analysts, and technologists. We have created a software that consolidates multiple data sources into one clean interface, allowing marketers and analysts to segment their users while making use of all of their data. Learn more at actioniq.com!

What is a Forward Deployed Engineer?

At a high level, an FDE is a software engineer that solves a wide variety of technical problems to enable customers to use the software effectively and with confidence. They are data engineers with high technical acumen, and they are social engineers with an intuition for interpersonal situations. FDEs at ActionIQ are part of the Field Team, which is responsible for driving customer success. At ActionIQ, the FDE role breaks down into a few categories of focus:

  1. Deploy new customers on the software. This requires understanding the customers’ business use cases, their data, and the interaction between the two. An FDE is responsible for writing the code that will ingest customer data into the platform, and configuring channels to push customer data back out to data stores and marketing API endpoints (e.g. Adwords and Facebook Ads APIs). FDEs work closely with customers’ data teams to a) configure automated transfers of data from their data stores to ActionIQ, b) understand data schemas and how all of the data needs to join within ActionIQ, and c) validate that once all of the data is brought into ActionIQ that it mirrors the customer’s data stores as expected. At the same time, FDEs work with marketing and analytics teams to translate that data into actionable insights through ActionIQ, answering technical questions and debugging data discrepancies that come up along the way.

2. Maintain ongoing customers. Generally, the more intense work occurs during deployments, but FDEs also work with customers on an ongoing basis once the deployment is complete. New data sources, marketing channels, business use cases, restructuring schemas in customer data sources, etc. present technical challenges. Most technical questions or tasks are directed to them.

3. Empower the field team as a whole. This takes many forms, including coding to automate or ameliorate common FDE work, writing documentation around system capabilities, restructuring processes for more efficient workflows, collaborating with other teams to tackle larger engineering and business challenges, and generally being a source of knowledge for field team members. This work will ultimately allow the field team to scale more efficiently with the number of customers we acquire.

What skills does a Forward Deployed Engineer need?

Every FDE at ActionIQ has come in with a distinct background and skill-set, from Electrical Engineering to Full-stack web development to Physics and Business Analysis. FDEs need to be able to think critically about technical problems, so having a technical mindset is foundational to the role. However, an aspiring FDE can acquire much of the technical knowledge on the job. Some of the most necessary skills are actually less technical in nature:

  • General problem solving: FDEs work with whichever tools are at their disposal — including access to content-experts within ActionIQ — to solve all problems that come their way. An FDE must be able to take an ambiguous problem, break it into solvable pieces, and find the right tools to ultimately resolve the problem. To put it simply, FDEs must be good at solving puzzles!
  • Time management: At any given time, they will have several tasks vying for priority and several people who are affected by those tasks. FDEs need to be able to balance those tasks while also communicating timelines.
  • Context switching: Priorities change often and customer requests arise at any point — FDEs need to be able to switch dexterously between ongoing lower-priority work, known high-priority work, and last-minute high-priority work.
  • Social intelligence: As someone who interfaces with the customer, FDEs are the face of the company. Thus, it is important for an FDE to have strong social skills; they should be a trustworthy point-person in the customer’s eyes. Further, they should know when to be cautious around customer expectations — making empty promises is an easy but damaging mistake to make.
  • Poise: Be able to stay level-headed in high-stress situations, particularly when customer-facing timelines are tight.

These are, of course, only a subset of the skills an FDE ought to have to be successful in the role, but they are undoubtedly some of the most critical. While a technical skillset is fundamental to the FDE role, these “soft skills” are at least as necessary for success.

What does one gain by being a Forward Deployed Engineer?

The FDE role is an incredible opportunity to grow both as an engineer and more generally as a person. As with any role, what an FDE gets out of the role will vary depending on what they came in with, the projects they engage with, and what they seek to get out of the role. Some of the major benefits I’ve experienced are:

  • Engineering skills: This is a heavily technical role which builds up a knowledge base across data engineering, large scale distributed systems, and DevOps, among other areas (within ActionIQ). FDEs have the opportunity to solve complex technical challenges that often require them to learn the tools as they go. As a result, each challenge leaves the FDE more capable to tackle the next one.
  • Exposure: Because FDEs work with multiple teams within and outside of ActionIQ, they are exposed to several aspects of the business, various industries, differing approaches to solving similar problems, an array of data challenges, and a whole host of other operational aspects. Their positioning at the intersection of business and technology gives them the chance to be involved in discussions on both ends of that spectrum, and all that lies in between.
  • Understanding of the product: FDEs work with the customer end-to-end, pulling their data into the platform and acting on business use-cases to push that data back out to marketing channels. With that comes an understanding of the technical and business challenges the product solves (and the challenges the product does not yet solve).
  • Project and time management skills: Balancing several priorities at once means you become really good at managing a full workload. To stay on top of their work, FDEs must remain organized. Additionally, they must have a clear way of communicating their workload to the many parties that depend on them. These skills will be useful in any role that grants ownership over a project or team, so they are some of the most indispensable.
  • Communication skills: Interacting with customers, via email, phone, video conference, or in-person, naturally enhances an FDEs communication skills. They quickly learn what/how/when to say things (…and, perhaps more importantly, what/how/when not to say things!). They also learn to communicate technical problems to non-technical people, and to relay non-technical business challenges to product and engineering teams. The diversity of messages and recipients involved in FDE communication provides a learning experience that will leave the FDE a strong and versatile communicator.
  • Ability to bounce back: Mistakes happen! As the person who is primarily accountable for specific customers’ technical matters, the FDE is responsible for reacting to missteps. FDEs learn to get up quickly when knocked down by a mistake, whether or not it was their own.
  • Ability to get things done: At the end of the day, the FDE is responsible for solving problems. With often tight timelines and a variety of dependencies on the work they’re doing, they have no choice but to become experts on getting things done.
  • Coworkers: This isn’t really a skill like the rest of the list, but it is my favorite part of ActionIQ so I would be remiss if I did not include it! FDEs work with practically every team at ActionIQ, which means they get to interact with almost everyone in the company. Given that everyone at the company is as intelligent and driven as they are supportive and generous, getting to work with people across teams is all the more wonderful.
  • Camaraderie among the team: This is another ActionIQ-specific one, [not] sorry! The Field team at ActionIQ is a wonderful group of people and we have plenty of fun together! Outside of our daily interactions at work, once a month or so we do Field team outings to activities like archery, pottery, and Italian dinners. The team has fostered a culture that is witty, supportive, hardworking, and uplifting, all of which makes Forward Deployed Engineering at ActionIQ that much better.

In Conclusion

Becoming an FDE is hard, it’s true. There is always new work to balance and always more knowledge to know. However, it is exactly the sort of role that can turn an ambitious engineer into a more confident and capable one. For someone with the ability and the desire to learn and to solve complex challenges, both technical and business-oriented in nature, Forward Deployed Engineering is a path that will lead to huge personal growth and tremendous reward.

If this role piques your curiosity, I encourage you to apply on our careers page!

Laura is a Forward Deployed Engineer and CFO (Chief Food Officer) at ActionIQ. When she isn’t working on data stuff at ActionIQ, there is a strong likelihood she is either developing one of her side projects, adding a painting to her Etsy shop, running around Manhattan, or eating cheese.

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