Joe Stump on How to Lead an Engineering Team

In Chapter 12 of 17 in his 2011 Capture Your Flag interview, Internet entrepreneur and SimpleGeo CTO Joe Stump notes what it means to be an engineering leader. Motivating and managing technical talent requires many things. Engineers want leaders to understand their responsibilities and interests. Stump believes engineering leaders must accept they will be unable to please everyone and then follow through making difficult decisions to keep product goals aligned with available resources and timeframes. Stump is the co-founder and CTO at SimpleGeo (, a San Francisco-based mobile location infrastructure services company. Previously Stump was Lead Architect at Digg. He programs in PHP, Python, Django and enjoys scaling websites. He earned a BBA in Computer Information Systems from Eastern Michigan University.


Erik Michielsen:  What does it mean to be a leader in what you do?

Joe Stump: I think from an engineering stand point the people that - and what I try to do and what I try to emulate – engineers want to know that the people that are guiding the ship know where they’re coming from, think like they think and defend their interests.  And I think that’s probably true for most employees.  You know, they want to know that – I’m sure that people in marketing and accounting want to know that their views are being represented and defended to other people in the company.  

So, the qualities that I look for in an engineering leader are – I don’t think really nice people work well as engineering leaders or leaders in general because they haven’t really learned the “you can’t please everyone all the time” thing.  And it’s particularly true with engineering, because the problem with engineering is technically with enough computing power and enough money anything is feasible.  Technically, right?  But as a technical leader you have to be able to say, “No, we can’t do that.” And explain why. And if you’re unwilling to do that and you say yes to too many features and too many people, it wreaks havoc on the engineering organization because now they’re under extreme deadlines and you only have so much capacity.  

I think one thing that a lot of engineering leaders haven’t really wrapped their brain around is that engineers manufacture features in code. And just like a normal manufacturing facility you can only produce so many widgets in a given day with so many machines.  So, if you have a bunch of engineers, even if they are amazingly talented engineers, they can only produce so much code in a given time.  

So, if you have an engineering manager that’s out off in the rest of the company saying, “Oh yeah accounting, we can totally build that.  Oh yeah marketing, we can totally build that.  Oh yeah, we can totally build this.”  But you only have one or two engineers, next thing you know you have ten things that need to be out and that’s when things start getting off the rails and the engineers start getting really upset.