Born or Built: 4 Engineers Reflect on Being a Leader

People don’t just stumble into leadership; they train for it. Engineering leaders reflect on why they were selected to lead their team and how they are cultivating team culture.

Written by Mia Goulart
Published on Jun. 06, 2024
Born or Built: 4 Engineers Reflect on Being a Leader
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Leaders are 70 percent made, 30 percent born. 

That’s according to one study by the University of Illinois Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Others present a different perspective. 

The centuries-old debate surrounding whether leaders are born or made is complex. While some argue that traits like confidence, charisma, assertiveness and intelligence are inherited, history suggests that traits such as determination, experience and passion hold more weight — emphasizing the potential for individuals to cultivate their leadership abilities over time.

Regardless of stance, people don’t just stumble into leadership; they train for it. But what qualities set these individuals apart, and how do they shape the culture of their teams?

Built In Austin sat down with leaders from Apex Fintech Solutions, Favor Delivery, Striveworks and Acrisure Innovation to find out. 

 

Suresh Ramachandran
Director, Software Engineering Client Developer Experience • Apex Fintech Solutions

Apex Fintech Solutions aims to enable frictionless investing for everyone.

 

Tell us about yourself. Why were you brought on to lead this team?

My focus is on providing a seamless ecosystem of tools and platforms. These resources empower our clients to seamlessly evaluate and integrate with our cutting-edge fintech API platforms. Our goal is to facilitate a best-in-class experience for software engineering teams across our diverse customer base, ranging from nimble startups to established financial institutions. 

With over 15 years of experience in building global organizations, my expertise lies in cultivating mission-oriented teams. Prior to joining Apex, I worked for PayPal, spearheading the development of developer experience platforms catering to thousands of internal and external developers. Before that, I honed my skills in global manufacturing automation at National Instruments, leading distributed test and calibration software research and development teams. My journey as a software engineer began like many others, complemented by a background in electrical engineering. I’m proud to call Austin my home, and I'm passionate about contributing to the vibrant tech community here.

 

How would you describe your approach to leadership, and how do you plan on building team culture?

My leadership approach is anchored in building trust, setting clear goals and recognizing individual strengths and motivations. I firmly believe in the power of trust — it’s the ultimate multiplier for any team or organization, whether sports, the armed forces or the tech industry. 

As a leader, I foster an environment of trust by prioritizing transparent and empathetic communication within the team and with our customers; I advocate for an employee-centric culture that emphasizes safety, well-being and open dialogue; I ensure that the team comprehends the mission and overarching goals that drive our work. Instilling a sense of purpose is paramount, as it serves as a powerful motivator. Part of my role involves articulating how everyone’s individual goals align with the larger mission, fostering a shared understanding of our collective purpose. 

 

“Purpose serves as a powerful motivator.”

 

Central to my leadership philosophy is recognizing and leveraging the diverse spectrum of strengths within the team. I provide avenues for individuals to exercise their strengths and grow in their roles,  fostering a culture of personal and professional development.

 

What initiative are you most excited to tackle, and what impact will it have?

I'm excited about our mission to democratize investing. Our goal is to provide a platform for fintech organizations, allowing retail investors to purchase stocks or bonds with just a few dollars using our API capabilities, which enables trading seamlessly. This significantly lowers the barrier to entry for investments, attracting end customers who may have previously remained on the sidelines. Our customers, innovative fintech companies, leverage our platform to bring their ideas to life. 

Our team focuses on initiatives that accelerate our partner organizations’ time to market and revenue generation. In the past year, we concentrated on developing an ecosystem for integration — which includes utilitarian SDKs, comprehensive documentation and live guided trials, streamlining the journey from concept to product. Moving forward, our team is dedicated to further enhancing this ecosystem and fostering a vibrant developer community around our tools and platforms. We thrive on customer feedback, continually iterating to provide an exceptional environment and prioritize high benchmarks in security, scalability and cost-effectiveness.

 

 

Faisal Ejaz
Engineering Manager • Favor

Favor is a restaurant delivery app that brings food and Texans together. 

 

Tell us about yourself. Why were you brought on to lead this team?

I moved to Austin in 2011 to pursue a degree in computer science at the University of Texas at Austin and instantly fell in love with the laid-back and retro vibe of the city. I built my career by moving up in engineering roles at Tableau Software. 

With a desire to serve fellow local Texans, I joined Favor in April of 2023. Favor’s engineering culture is fast-paced, and modern technology is infused with ingenuity and creativity to solve unique problems in a multifaceted and complex space serving multiple user groups simultaneously. I currently lead two engineering squads made up of extremely talented backend engineers. My experience of co-founding a start-up several years ago, as well as my complementary engineering skills, made me a perfect fit for this role to build product-oriented solutions using technical algorithms and systems that continually grow the business.

 

How would you describe your approach to leadership, and how do you plan on building team culture?

Leadership starts with setting the right team structure. Each team member brings their aspirations, goals and levels of motivation that are in constant flux and evolution. I strongly believe an emphasis on individual growth and a lightweight, personalized team structure build a happy, high-performing team.

I also work to create the right opportunities for my team. Through collaboration with business peers and leaders, I keep tabs on the overall direction of the business. This helps uncover opportunities for not only my team to impact, but to influence. I’ll connect the right initiative to the right team member, balancing the needs of the business and the growth of the individual.

Finally, a strong leader finds ways to maximize levels of autonomy. High-performing individuals are often empowered in their ability to be autonomous. Each team member, regardless of their seniority, should have the freedom to make decisions, execute, take ownership and make mistakes. This cultivates spikes in motivation to make an impact and enables them to be creative.

 

“A strong leader finds ways to maximize levels of autonomy.”

 

What initiative are you most excited to tackle, and what impact will it have?

I am grateful to have the exciting opportunity to lead the assignment squad at Favor. Though this squad is small, its potential impact on the business is huge. Over the past year, the squad has built, tested, and deployed a new assignment engine designed with flexibility for all user groups. The number of business use cases is explosive, and this system provides a platform to address all those use cases at a massive scale.

Favor primarily powers H-E-B’s e-commerce home delivery business. The assignment squad and the new system we have built play a pivotal role in supporting that business. I’m excited to support my product, operational, technical, and business partners at H-E-B. Together, we’ll develop and manage the technology needed to scale up highly effective batched assignments at H-E-B locations. This will create efficiencies in Favor’s service and for H-E-B partners operationally, ensuring a healthy business for the future.

 

 

Vinoj Kumar
VP of Engineering • Striveworks

Striveworks provides AI solutions to help businesses drive innovation and growth.

 

Tell us about yourself. Why were you brought on to lead this team?

I am an engaged, hands-on executive with years of experience in multi-cloud infrastructure, corporate infrastructure and operations, and autonomous driving, emphasizing machine learning. My career spans leadership roles at Striveworks, Cruise and Google, where I built and scaled teams, drove operational excellence and aligned engineering objectives with business goals.

I was brought on to lead this team at Striveworks due to my proven track record in building leadership benches, driving results with a strong execution bias and aligning engineering objectives with business goals. My ability to lead through challenges and foster resilience has been instrumental in navigating complex organizational landscapes and achieving strategic business success.

 

How would you describe your approach to leadership, and how do you plan on building team culture?

My approach to leadership is centered on fostering a collaborative and inclusive environment where every team member feels valued and empowered. I believe in leading by example, maintaining transparency and providing clear direction to ensure alignment with our strategic goals. Building a strong leadership bench is crucial, and I focus on promoting internal talent and attracting top-tier professionals to key roles.

 

“Building a strong leadership bench is crucial. I focus on promoting internal talent and attracting top-tier professionals to key roles.”

 

To build a robust team culture, I prioritize open communication, continuous learning and mutual respect. I encourage innovation by creating a safe space for experimentation and learning from failures. Recognizing and celebrating successes, both big and small, helps maintain high morale and motivation. I also emphasize the importance of work-life balance and strive to create a supportive atmosphere where team members can thrive personally and professionally. 

By setting clear expectations, providing the necessary resources and fostering a sense of ownership, I aim to build a culture of accountability, resilience and excellence.

 

What initiative are you most excited to tackle, and what impact will it have?

The enhancement and scaling of our low-code MLOps platform. This initiative aligns perfectly with my passion for making advanced technologies accessible and efficient. Simplifying the ML model development, monitoring, remediation and governance processes excites me because it directly empowers organizations to deploy AI solutions faster and more reliably.

This product has a profound impact on our customers, reducing their time to market for AI initiatives, enhancing model performance and ensuring robust governance. Deployment is just the start of the cyclical process needed for organizations to get sustainable value from AI and ML. At Striveworks, this product solidifies our leadership in the MLOps space, fostering innovation and growth. This initiative is not just about meeting immediate needs, but about shaping the future of AI operations.

 

 

Aditya Kumar
Senior Director of Engineering • Acrisure Innovation

Acrisure Innovation builds AI software to disrupt the insurance industry.

 

Tell us about yourself. Why were you brought on to lead this team?

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to work on projects spanning system and application development across various industries. This has included building hypervisors, trading platforms and customer relationship management systems. As the scope of my responsibilities has broadened from being an individual contributor to an engineering leader, I’ve had the chance to deliver on high-impact projects and build high-caliber teams.

I was hired by Acrisure to design and build its fintech platform, help scale its operations and enable a customer-focused digital experience. This required someone able to design and implement core parts of the platform while helping formulate a product vision and building out an engineering team.

 

How would you describe your approach to leadership, and how do you plan on building team culture?

The most successful organizations I’ve been a part of have a sense of autonomy and ownership. This allows them to focus on solving problems while keeping the business impact top of mind. It requires a clear strategic vision from leadership and the space to execute it. Building trust is also paramount and requires a willingness to join the team in the trenches in whatever capacity.

 

“Trust requires a willingness to join the team in the trenches.”

 

As a leader, my goal is to encourage a culture of inclusion, collaboration and high performance. It starts with hiring focused individuals who have low egos and are excited to work with and learn from each other. To encourage a sense of ownership and accountability while fostering creativity, I encourage individuals to participate in every aspect of a project and provide input regardless of their seniority or title.

Building team camaraderie is also essential. While this can happen at work, I believe it’s essential for the team to spend time outside of work through company-sponsored activities.

 

What initiative are you most excited to tackle, and what impact will it have?

One of the key initiatives to emerge from Acrisure’s transformation to a fintech company is a platform that allows customers and our employees to service their needs digitally. The new platform needs to handle the complexity and scale of a consumer application while integrating with multiple internal and third-party systems to bring together disparate data, technologies and processes — while introducing a new portfolio of products.

The success of this initiative will allow Acrisure to provide its customers with more comprehensive solutions in new markets that help protect them from risks while allowing them to solidify their financial health as an individual or a business. 

Solving for both the engineering and business operations complexity involved in the project is exciting for myself and the team. We get to be on the cutting edge of technology solving interesting problems that don’t always have obvious solutions.

 

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images provided by Shutterstock and listed companies.

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