There are a lot of brilliant people behind the software products that we use every day, but not all of them get the recognition that they deserve. That’s a shame because these people can teach us a lot about leadership, innovation, and teamwork that can make our own projects better.
In this article, we’ll be highlighting some rising stars of software engineering. We’ll introduce some men and women in the space who are doing more for their teams, more for their customers and more for the world around them.
Whether that’s by helping to create monster applications that turn industries on their heads or heading quiet open-source projects that change the world with a little less noise. Every contribution is important in its own way.
You’ll learn lessons in leadership, generosity, team building and how outside the box thinking helps you to be a better team member. Here’s our list of rockstars in the software industry you should be paying attention to.
Everyone wants to make a difference in the world, but Margolis has managed to combine her skills as a coder with her desire to make the world a better place. Her specialty is software engineering aimed at social justice.
Her first application allowed tenants to rate their landlords for an anti-eviction initiative in the San Francisco Bay area. An excellent resource for those feeling cheated by the rental process and rising housing costs.
However, she also worked with Adrian Reyna of United We Dream to create Notifica. This application gives its users the ability to send notifications to their loved ones if they fear that they may be deported. This allows people to access their support network quickly, and the project aims to give immigrants the dignity that they deserve.
“Technology is rapidly changing the way we do everything in our lives,” Margolis says. “A lot of times, people in the tech industry think about what we can do but don’t consider what we should do.” - Natalia Margolis
Margolis got wind of the project at a gathering where Reyna was speaking about the need for an emergency contact system for undocumented immigrants. She took the initiative to bring his concerns to her company, Huge, and she and three of her team members proceeded to build a prototype of the Notifica app.
The app was the winner of Huge’s internal hackathon, and they offered to support further development to the app by allocating a larger development team to work on the application for United We Dream. The team also worked directly with its target audience to figure out exactly what features they needed.
She also convinced Huge to start up a coding boot camp aimed at low-income women in their area. It’s a beautiful thing when technology works toward the greater good.
Davies is a software engineer on a mission to make the web more accessible to people with disabilities. At just 20 years old, she gave her first conference talk called “Death to Icon fonts” where she described the immense issues that people with dyslexia have when navigating pages that used certain fonts. This spurred many websites to change the way that they handle fonts to make them more accessible to people with disabilities.
She now gives regular lectures that assist other software development teams in finding ways that they can design their projects to be more accessible. She was also awarded a technology rising stars award for her efforts.
“Technology plays such a huge role in my life and I want to do the same for others. It’s why I speak about accessibility, I want everyone using the web to have a good experience.” - Seren Davies
Davies is also a software engineer at Elsevier, a company that maintains a scientific research platform and makes it easier for scientific and medical research teams to learn from data sets. Researchers can also use the platform as a launching pad to find places that will publish their work and share that work with others who could benefit from it.
While many people see anyone who works in software as the kind of people that make big salaries the reality is that this rule does not apply to everyone. Some of these people choose to forgo corporate life entirely so that they can release software that helps the world for free.
That’s what life is like for Max Howell, the creator of Homebrew, a software package that “installs the stuff you need that your Apple or Linux system didn’t”. However, the software package has also become quite popular with gamers who want their consoles to have a little more functionality than the creators had originally intended.
Howell’s work is truly a labor of love, and he gets by on the kindness of strangers who support his work through donations. However, it seems it’s tough to earn a living through free software even though millions of people use his creations every day to make their computer systems more useful.
In a society where things aren’t seen as valuable unless they make money, Howell has chosen to instead focus on tools that prove their value by how many people they help.
He’s working on a number of developer tools, such as Canopy which brings real-time notifications and communication tools to the Github platform. His work helps other open source software teams to create things that everyone in the world has access to use, contribute to and re-hash for the greater good, or whatever they want really.
Markham was the engineer behind Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign website. Political campaigns have tight deadlines that need to be met, and so in an effort to help her team to meet these challenges she created “pantsuit”.
Pantsuit is the internal design system for Hillary for America. It was designed to keep everyone on track and to help her team to get things done faster and more efficiently. It uses a modular architecture so that it’s very flexible to changes that need to be made at the drop of a hat.
“Working on the tech team was probably one of the best experiences I've had. It was a lot of fun. I've never felt more respected and trusted as a person but also as a developer. For the director of front-end to tell me we need a design system and literally just leave me to my own devices and let me do it. That's unheard of.” - Mina Markham
She also focused on creating more inclusive features for the campaign which would help voters who might have low-vision or color blindness to more easily process the information on the pages.
Markham is dedicated to helping the world of coding to become more inclusive as well, and so she founded the Dallas chapter of Girl Develop it. She also teaches for Black Girls Code, an organization that is aiming to increase the presence of women of color in STEM and help them to be leaders in their communities. She’s a self-taught coder herself, and she now works on the Slack team.
Mangot is not just an engineering leader, but he’s also a business problem solver. His specialties include helping startups to get through digital transformations and to improve their culture. One of these missions involved helping Salesforce to clean up its act.
This included getting all of the executives on-board to eliminate organizational barriers, and pushing the company towards a major shift in team culture. Shifting corporate culture is no easy feat, but as a member of the Salesforce team, he helped to cement in everyone’s minds that the organization was one team and they had just one goal: to deliver a great product to the customer.
He’s a big fan of using DevOps to create high performing teams. However, now it seems that he has turned his attention to the medical industry in an effort to help people. It’ll be interesting to see how he applies his leadership skills to this new field.
“My first job out of college was as a research assistant/programmer for the National Institutes of Health in an Alzheimer’s disease research lab. Every day, no matter how bad it was, no matter whether my C code wouldn’t compile, or if the network was down, or how much trouble I had finding “normal controls”, I had done something to help people.” - Dave Mangot
With experience and great leadership, McKellar was able to help her development team create and sell two startups. Zulip, a chat application that she worked on was acquired by Dropbox just two years after the project started. Her team also did the same thing with another product called Ksplice, which they sold to Oracle. To what does she credit this success? Great teamwork.
"You're directly supporting the people on your team; you're managing execution and coordination across teams; and you're stepping back to observe and evolve the broader organization and its processes as it grows." - Jessica McKellar
McKellar's goals as a leader are people focused. This includes developing long-term relationships with her team members and making sure that their needs are seen to. She takes the time to figure out what they like and don't like and she learns how to use their strengths to benefit the project and their enjoyment of their work better.
This includes the ability to identify whether someone would be happy in a management position and to realize that not everyone is happy in this role.
Her leadership efforts didn't go unnoticed, and she joined the Dropbox team after they acquired Zulip. She made Forbes 30 under 30 list in 2017, and she's now the CTO of Pilot. Pilot is an application that allows startups to outsource their bookkeeping easily.
A couple of years ago, Coinbase was a startup you’d have likely never heard of. However, they’re now one of the prominent on-ramps for people to begin purchasing, using and investing in cryptocurrencies. Something that at the time, nobody else really cared about doing.
However, once the value of Bitcoin shot up everyone wanted a piece, and that presented Coinbase with an enormous scaling issue that they weren’t prepared for. Srinivasan was one of just a few engineers on the project at the time, and their team was forced to completely change the way they do things to keep up with demand.
They did this through hard work and a new understanding of how teamwork comes into play on big projects. However, this new mindset still comes in handy today, and the expanded Coinbase team uses their leadership skills every day to quickly expand its product offering for their customers.
“On the Ethereum project, we had one person that naturally started operating as the technical lead, functioning like an organizational pacemaker. He said ‘I’m going to own this, I’m going to create a document that goes from day one to launch and re-encapsulate everything every team needs to do.” - Varun Srinivasan
He’s now a director of engineering, and his team focuses on using tight-knit groups to conquer additions to the platform quickly. When Coinbase added Ethereum, they structured the release as a 3-month mini-project with focused teams to push out the update for their customers even faster.
While for most companies it seems that firing whoever is to blame for a mistake is the go-to action, Dave prefers a different leadership approach. One that involves removing blame altogether and instead using failure as a learning opportunity. He even wrote a book about it.
This approach prioritizes learning over punishment. It removes the disincentive that potentially guilty participants have to share what they know so that the whole team can then gain from that knowledge. It also builds trust with your team when they know that they can make mistakes without retribution and that those mistakes are now chances to improve instead.
“You’ve fired the engineers to show everyone that you’re taking this seriously, that something is being swiftly done to address the failure. But you haven’t actually figured out how these people were able to do what they did, and can’t guarantee that something similar won’t happen in the future.” - Dave Zwieback
Zwieback’s leadership skills were the driving force behind Next Big Sound, a music analytics and insights platform which was acquired by Pandora. He now has his hands in several projects, including working at Facebook and acting as the CTO of Lotus Outreach, a charitable organization which seeks to provide educational resources for at-risk women and children living in poverty.
Maxwell treats emotions with just as much respect as she does data. That’s because as an engineering leader she knows that to keep great engineers on your team you need to offer them more than just a job.
Her leadership style focuses on team culture and creating an environment that makes people excited to come to work every day. She has deployed these methods across teams at companies like Yahoo, Pinterest, Slack and Apple, and she firmly believes that “flow” is what every team needs.
“I can recall a few times where I thought to myself, ‘If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would still come into work.’ That’s flow,” she says. “Truth is, it doesn’t have to be the lottery. It can be an offer from another company, the call of launching a startup or any number of professional gravitational pulls. It’s about basic retention. That’s how vital it is to help your team members experience — and create — a sense of flow in their work.” - Cynthia Maxwell
Her management style seeks to help every one of her engineers to be “in the zone” and produce their best work, similar to what an artist or an athlete might experience. However, she has gone beyond just trying to create a pleasant work environment. Maxwell used actionable data and created graphs to help her figure out how to guide her team into this magical productive state.
Maxwell’s methods help her to connect with her team members and even zoom in on who might not be happy with their work at the present moment. This allows her to keep her team invested in the projects she works on and to keep a low turnover rate for the teams that she is a part of.
In closing, leadership is a skill, but it’s a skill that can be learned with enough effort. Much how these people transformed their teams and their ideas, you can do the same with your own goals and initiatives.
While this list is nowhere near extensive and there are so many more people that are making a difference in the world of software engineering, we think these picks are a great start. You can follow these engineering leaders on Twitter to gain valuable insight and learn better leadership skills that you can take with you for your own projects.