Discussing Engineering Leadership & Development with Donald Piret, Head of Engineering at Sephora SEA

Graduating from University in Brussels, Donald immediately started work building a startup. After a few years of client work on a number of interesting products, Donald decided to move on to Roomorama – a startup that were making waves in New York. Moving stateside, Donald was surprised to hear that one month later the company had decided to move operations to Singapore to support relations they had with local government and get access to various grants the startup was qualified to receive.  

Having fallen in love with Singapore, Donald later moved from Roomorama to PocketMath. Remaining there for a few years, Donald experienced the travel industry through Expedia before moving to Sephora where he has been ever since. 

With Donald starting and joining tech Startups, he’s found himself in tech leadership positions from the outset of his career. For Donald, his progression has been centered around taking on bigger and bigger teams at larger and larger organisations. Although this sounds straightforward, we all know it’s anything but.  

“Between every role I’ve had to completely relearn what I thought the purpose of an engineering leader was. In a startup, you can easily manage a team of four or five, and just focus really on product and making sure that your teams are productive and happy. Once you start dealing with teams of 40 or 50 engineers, stakeholder management becomes much more important.” 

For Donald, embracing the agile nature of engineering leadership was key to his success and how he was able to quickly climb the ranks of engineering leadership.  

Own Your Own Career Development 

When it comes to developing your engineering career, it’s important that you remember that you alone are the one responsible for reaching the next goal and getting to where you want to be.  

Naturally, it’s a good idea to lean on your seniors and manager to seek guidance and advice, or to help provide you the right kind of opportunities, but when it comes down to your growth you are the one who’s ultimately accountable.  

For Donald, seeking out the right opportunities for personal development, staying curious and realising that Software Engineering is a field that is always evolving, are all key components to advancing your engineering career. 

But it’s never that straightforward. 

“Your job is not going to always provide you the right opportunities for personal growth and personal development. And sometimes that means you need to create those opportunities for yourself. Whether it’s reading, or blogs, just find the time to do it. “ 

Some see management and leadership as one and the same. Some also see management as the prescribed route to leadership but management isn’t for everyone. 

“You need to take an honest look at yourself and ask what it is you enjoy doing. If it is people management then you need to ask what you’re good at? What are you not good at? How do I practice the skills that will get me where I want to be? If it isn’t people management, that’s fine too. There are great opportunities for you to have a very successful and fulfilling career on the technical side of things. But then you just need to ask: what would make me an amazing technical expert in the next 5-10 years? And what are the skills that I need to develop in order to get there.” 

Compensating for Blind Spots on Your Team 

Naturally, we all gravitate towards one aspect of our job. Whether you’re a marketer who naturally drifts towards content creation as opposed to content delivery, we all prefer certain aspects.  

When you move into more senior roles, you’re expected to cover aspects of people management, some aspects of stakeholder management and some aspects of project management as well as some little bits of individual contribution. 

Some managers or leaders may be vocal about their preferences, others might just delegate the work.  

For Donald, compensating for the knowledge gaps or ‘blind spots’ on your team is a great way for you to push your career forwards. 

“I think what you can do as an individual within that organisation is try to compensate for those gaps. If you see a need within your team that is not being fulfilled by senior leadership or your boss, try to see if you can play that role for your team instead, you’d be helping the organisation as well as boosting your own profile.” 

Not Everyone Has the Same Needs 

Every team, in every organisation is made up of professionals and although we all try and remain, as the name implies, professional… we are all still individuals with varying wants and needs.  

The best leaders recognise that.  

“Some people react much better to somebody who’s very hands on and working close with them, and that they can learn from in a very practical manner. Some people completely hate that. And they want their bosses to just provide some inspiration, provide the right kind of support, but then be hands off as much as possible.”  

If you do find yourself in a position of leadership in engineering teams, Donald has this advice: 

“Try to learn as much as you can about the people you work with, try to understand their communication styles, their leadership preferences, how they would want your relationship with them to be and then slowly try to develop a working relationship with them that works for both of you. Because that’s not always going to be mean the same thing for everybody.” 

Make Sure People Understand the Why 

It’s human nature to want to understand where we fit into things. The proverbial ‘bigger picture’ isn’t just for strategy meetings, it’s for everyone. And so having some kind of message which focuses on why this task in important for their individual role or their team will get more involvement.   

Top-down mandates often fail when the ‘why’ isn’t clearly communicated. For Donald, the vision of what you’re trying to achieve, put into context, is key to getting buy in.  

“Don’t assume that everybody understands what you’re trying to do. And don’t assume that everybody thinks that you have the best intentions in mind. Make sure that people see the vision, make sure that people understand what you’re trying to do make sure that people know that you have the best intentions for them in mind.”