Learning and talent management, when done right, should go hand in hand in an organization. The most adept leaders – in any discipline – will make an effort to understand and promote both. 

Take Eric Brooke, VP of Software Engineering for SpotHero, a parking reservation service and tech startup. Brooke joined the company about three months ago. He’s still absorbing information and getting to know the tech staff and team, creating a funding plan for the next five years, and figuring out how to get his engineers involved in both present and future business decisions. Learning plays a key role in all of that. 

With a Computer Science degree from the University of Hertfordshire and part of a Masters’ in Business Administration from Open University – both in the UK – Brooke finds real value in formal, classroom-based training. He’s taken a number of postgraduate classes in artificial intelligence and machine learning at MIT. 

To make effective, high quality training, however, requires a great teacher. When the right person delivers training, the investment is almost always worthwhile. DevelopIntelligence had the opportunity to speak with Brooke about his role, how to motivate and manage the best technical talent and how formal training fits into his talent management strategy. 

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

How has the VP of Software Engineering role changed in the past few years?

We’re learning from lots of other companies, what they’re succeeding at, what they’re failing at, in lots of different ways, whether it be the human, the process, the product or the technology aspect. There’s a lot more examples of information. That’s important because learning from Google is not really helpful for me, or learning from Stripe who are working at a global scale. That’s one piece.

The next area is, data has become a lot more important. It’s always been important, but now people understand how important it is to make sure your data is clean, healthy, accessible. So you can use some of the newer forms of knowledge evolving around data science, machine learning. Machine learning is definitely something on most VPs of Engineering’s perspectives. [For it to work] you have to have enough data. You have to have clean data. And you have to the right people e.g. data scientists and data engineers.

How do you – or how will you – build a high functioning engineering team?

There’s lots of different ways, but the most important thing is you have to have good leaders that allow engineers to have autonomy, purpose and mastery. We’re trying to essentially find the balance between challenging and happy. If you’re too challenging, you exhaust your engineers, and they basically break down and don’t work anymore. If they’re too happy, they don’t work. 

The balance of challenging and happiness which leads to productivity starts with good leadership. In most cases good leadership is finding the road blockers that get in the way, the bottlenecks, and helping engineers get through those process issues. You’re trying to build a culture and a community that keeps evolving all of the time. It’s patching itself here and there, whether it be a human thing or a technical thing. 

You do that broadly by transparency, making sure that information is flowing down, that people understand what is going on and why decisions are happening. Why is a very important. Always fully explain and allow people to dig in and understand. Also, when you’re looking at change management, how are you making sure that people feel heard in the organization? 

The other thing is, you want people in the organization that you can work with. We have this concept of cultural fit. That’s very damaging in that you can end up with a large number of white men being software engineers. What you occasionally need to do is look at is cultural add. How is this person going to challenge our culture and make sure the culture grows and becomes better? That can be many different things: background, race, gender. You’re looking for people who are going to help you all as a group be better. Diversity is key.

How you balance technology and culture?

They are equally important. Conway’s Law comes into play. How you create teams and departments actually is how your code ends up. The divisions in your human aspect are often the divisions in your code and vice versa. Broadly, I’m a strong believer in pushing technical decisions down to a competent person. I do not feel that as a VP of Engineering I should get involved in technical decisions. I should be uplifting and giving the freedom and the ability to fail and learn from it to employees. 

That doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions, of course. But when it comes to those opinions I measure them as a peer, not as a dictator. That decision-making reflects in the code. How do you build APIs? How do you build teams? Which domains do you have working together versus separating? We like to think that technical and human are different, but they have a massive impact on each other. 

How important is formal training for an engineer these days?

It depends on the engineer, and it depends on what you’re teaching them. There are many different things that work in the teaching environment, but there’s lots of things you can learn on the job, and lots of things that work better from coaching or mentoring. But as part of the mix [formal training] can be a very powerful thing. 

Is classroom training valuable?

Yes. Classroom training, we have a bias depending on how good our teachers were when we were brought up. If we’ve had a couple of good teachers, then we can see the value of it. If you’ve had lots of bad teaching, your views can be very set that this is not the way for you to learn. It’s an important part of the mix, but context is very important. 

What about more advanced technical skills like artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc. Is the classroom good for those? 

I took a number of classes in a classroom environment for machine learning. I found that incredibly valuable. Again, it depends how you do it. It really does come down to the quality of the teaching: How interesting is the teacher? How good are the notes? How do they follow up? How do they make sure the knowledge is still in your head? When do you get the opportunity to speak to your peers about the work? As an adult, some of the conversations I have with peers about what they’re doing are some of the most invaluable lessons I could have. If you’re reflecting on the same material that works really well. 

That sounds very similar to DevelopIntelligence’s learning strategy. The company uses practitioners like yourself to teach classes, and it’s not lecture based. Learners actually write code, break it, and have time in labs to talk to one another as they generate ideas on how to solve problems presented. What more can you share about the VP of Engineering role today?

The VP of Engineering role is a really mixed bag. It can be very different for different companies. From a startup perspective, its usually brought in when the cofounder or CTO needs help managing the organization and figuring out, ‘how do I scale this from this size to this size?’ That’s kind of what my job is about. 

For some VPs of Engineering its very much about the technology. It can vary very much. I’m very careful to only get involved in technology if I need to. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just that I’m a very strong believer that if you do something that you’re good at, you’re stopping someone else from growing into that position. As far as being strategic about learning, I absolutely do that – leave gaps. That’s fundamental to the survival of any technology company because everything changes all the time.