Insights on Engineering Leadership from Capgemini Engineering’s Chief Software Officer

April 26, 2022

Recently our friends from ELC hosted ELC Summit Spring 2022, a three-day virtual event that provided insights and peer support to help engineering leaders thrive. Jiani Zhang, Chief Software Officer at Capgemini Engineering gave a talk titled “What Engineering Leaders Should be Focused on in 2022.”

Jiani was interviewed by event host and emcee Patrick Gallagher. In this post, I summarize the conversation between Jiani and Patrick.

Challenging times for engineering leaders

To start the talk, Patrick asked Jiani to provide observations about the current environment for engineering leaders. Jiani said that the environment is as challenging as ever. Capgemini Engineering has teams in Ukraine that are affected by the war there. India, where the company also has teams, is seeing high attrition rates. 

Jiani said that the top priority is the health and safety of employees. In addition to world events, the pandemic of the past 2.5 years has led people to reevaluate goals and what’s important in life. Employees are focused on the mission and values of a prospective employer. 

They want to find companies whose missions they admire and whose values match their own. They want jobs to be fulfilling. Engineering leaders need to factor this in when recruiting and hiring. They need to deeply understand what will keep employees excited, engaged and committed. That not only helps to attract new talent but causes them to stay longer.

How to lead small engineering teams (i.e., 50 people or less)

Patrick asked for Jiani’s advice on how to lead teams of 50 engineers or less – in other words, leading a team at a startup company. Jiani said that at that size, agility and speed are critical. In addition, elite talent is important – when you’re a small team, every hire counts and each person has to pull more weight. 

Jiani noted that finding talented engineers is challenging. She circled back to mission and purpose as cornerstones for recruiting talent. When recruiting, engineering leaders need to pitch not just the company, but also the product, the company strategy and the company trajectory (i.e., how quickly the business will grow). 

Jiani noted that teams can be augmented with external partners, though engineering leaders should allow those partners to deliver agile teams rather than individual people. According to Jiani, “Go build a scrum team with an external partner rather than just trying to pluck individuals.”

Team extension: use pods rather than individuals

Following up on the concept of using external partners to deliver agile teams, Patrick asked Jiani to explain how this model works. Jiani said that Capgemini Engineering has successfully delivered agile teams to clients by “curating” the right set of engineers who know how to work together and play to each other’s strengths. 

The key is to make the engagement outcome-focused. In other words, clients define the outcome they’d like to achieve and the external partner assembles teams to achieve that outcome. That partner isn’t just supplying people, they’re committed to achieving the outcome.

Another benefit of delivering teams (vs. individuals) is that product knowledge stays within the team. If the team makeup shifts and a few engineers leave, the remaining team members retain valuable product knowledge.

Mentorship programs for engineers

Patrick asked Jiani how engineering leaders can mentor junior employees and individual contributors into leadership roles. Jiani said that senior leaders should provide guidance on the skills and capabilities needed to obtain more responsibility. 

It should be done in a programmatic fashion, said Jiani – after “X” amount of time or experience, a team member can move to the next level. Once there, another “Y” amount will advance them to an even higher level. Patrick agreed with that approach, saying that the key is to provide clarity to team members. “People need a roadmap,” said Patrick.

How to get the “Senior Engineer” title?

Patrick referenced an industry conversation around job titles. Specifically, there’s a concept being discussed that after a certain amount of time, an engineer can be elevated into a “Senior Engineer” title. For example, “after three years as an engineer, I automatically advance to a senior engineer.”

Jiani noted that Capgemini Engineering recently completed a baseline around engineering job titles. For Jiani, a title needs to be based on a quantitative assessment of capabilities, not solely on years of experience in a role. 

Deliverables achieved and project execution plays a big role in whether an engineer’s title is elevated. The decision shouldn’t be arbitrary. Instead, people want well-defined criteria. Engineering leaders ought to spell out specific achievements an engineer must make to obtain the elevated job title.

Engineering leadership in larger organizations

Patrick asked Jiani about engineering leadership in larger organizations. Jiani responded that larger organizations must think beyond product and project to a portfolio. The portfolio might consist of 5-10 different products, each with its own engineering team. Engineering leaders must perform an assessment of their portfolio, then decide where to focus their investment in resources.

Jiani noted that Capgemini Engineering has a sophisticated framework for assessing product portfolios for clients. The framework factors in a number of variables, including programming languages used, technical debt and whether the customers of particular products are ones that the client wishes to retain. The framework also considers the current business model of the company and how well existing products fit that model.

On-Demand replay

Watch a recording of Jiani’s talk at ELC Summit Spring: