People, product, passion: 4 tech leaders share what sets their teams apart

Written by Michael Hines
Published on Feb. 27, 2018
People, product, passion: 4 tech leaders share what sets their teams apart
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CTO, vice president of engineering, lead architect — whatever the title, top technologists play an outsized role at their companies. In addition to evaluating new technologies and setting business strategies, these leaders are also responsible for shaping culture and helping their teams hit new heights.

We caught up with tech leaders at four Chicago companies to learn more about some of the challenges their teams face and what they look for in engineers.

This is part two of a two-part series. You can check out part one here.


Shane Colley Tempus SVP of Engineering

Tempus is developing a data-driven platform to help physicians deliver more personalized cancer care. CTO Shane Colley said his team’s passion for fighting cancer with cutting-edge tech and their ability to work cross-functionally are just two of the things that set them apart.


What technologies power your business?

The data our teams collect and make sense of power the technology used by researchers and clinicians on the front lines of cancer care. Our data scientists look for patterns in clinical and genomic data using Python, Plotly and a variety of data services from Amazon. We use Docker, Jenkins and Terraform to automate, build and deploy pipelines. The portals that clinicians and researchers ultimately use are built using React, Redux and Node.js.


How did your team overcome its biggest technological hurdle?

Our engineering team builds products in partnership with molecular scientists, computational biologists, bioinformaticians, UX designers and data scientists. Working with team members in various roles and with such diverse backgrounds can either be viewed as a challenge or an opportunity.

Given the complexity of genomics and the scientific complexity of many of the algorithms we run, we make architecture decisions that enable a fast pace of technology production and data innovation. Embracing a decentralized polyglot environment with a heavy use of automation in our build, deploy and batch pipelines has been key to turning our cross-functional teams loose.

What sets your team apart, and what makes an engineer a good culture fit?

As we look to grow our team, we are looking for people who are intellectually curious and who are excited and motivated by the opportunity to tackle cancer and other diseases that are affecting millions of lives. Those attributes also contribute to a team that is set apart by its mission and use of advanced technology in breakthrough ways.


tastyworks CTO Linwood Woody Ma

Online brokerage tastyworks helps DIY traders make more informed decisions through a combination of technology and content. When asked to describe his engineering team, Linwood “Woody” Ma, CTO of tastyworks’ parent company, tastytrade, needed only one word: amazing.


What technologies power your business?

Everything that makes sense, and hopefully in the right context for the appropriate cost, complexity and benefits. We use a lot of open-source frameworks to build our stack, then we create our own custom solutions on top of those foundations.

The answer that will resonate most with engineers is this: C++ in the core with Ruby microservices surrounding that and a bit of Elixir and Phoenix. We’re also increasing our Java footprint, with a tendency to lean more toward more modern stream and event processing services and a large cast of supporting characters like Elasticsearch, Sensu, Chef, Terraform and so on. Our front-end software deployment is currently Ember.js for web, JavaFX for desktop, Objective-C and Swift for iOS, Java for Android, and a Java-to-Objective-C framework for our cross-platform business logic library.

As for cloud versus traditional infrastructure, we're a bit of an oddball. We've deployed much more traditional server and virtualized infrastructure than cloud lately, but we're remarkably comfortable with either at this point.


How did your team overcome its biggest technological hurdle?

Our biggest challenge technologically has been balancing sexy feature development with very unglamourous stability, scale and throughput improvements. Between the two — and because we have such a young brokerage business — there is a handful of basic features that other, more mature, firms may offer but that we haven't gotten around to building yet.

I like to think of us as the Southwest Airlines or Costco of brokerage services. We're not typically high-end in our offerings, but the value is tremendous. Our customers have been phenomenally supportive of our work, and in return we continue to look for ways to lower their costs while also delivering a solid core offering and rock-solid stability.

What sets your team apart, and what makes an engineer a good culture fit?

We handle a monstrous amount of scale, complexity and breadth, and we do it with a tiny number of developers. Our goal has always been, as much as is realistic, to have a full-stack, polyglot team profile. We rely on everyone to be able to take direct responsibility for significant features and services, and in return we try and remove as much of the irritating development overhead as is practical. If you honestly enjoy the engineering tasks and rituals of the work, we offer a great place to keep your skills honed.


Trading Technologies CTO Drew Shields

Trading Technologies develops software for professional derivatives traders. CTO Drew Shields said his team’s biggest asset is its ability to adapt to change — a skill that helped mightily when the company was developing its first cloud-based platform.


What technologies power your business?

We rely on a variety of technologies to drive our platform. Our user interface is powered by one of the highest-performing JavaScript applications in the world. We rely on Amazon Web Services for a variety of technologies, including time series databases, elastic computing and data warehousing. We also build low-latency applications on CentOS using Solarflare network cards for kernel bypass.

How did your team overcome its biggest technological hurdle?

A few years ago, we made the switch from our legacy full-stack Windows C++ platform to our new SaaS platform. The biggest hurdle was getting over 100 quality and software engineers comfortable with new technologies with no time to spare in terms of building functionality for end users. In addition, moving to a SaaS world meant our release management processes had to evolve. Our large team went through major transitions while sprinting to deliver a product.

What sets your team apart, and what makes an engineer a good culture fit?

Our ability to adjust to change is our greatest asset. We have stayed nimble despite being an almost 24-year-old company, and that has been a key factor in keeping Trading Technologies at the cutting-edge of fintech. The most important trait an engineer needs to possess to be successful here is flexibility.


Andrew Platkin ReviewTrackers

ReviewTrackers collects data from over 100 review websites to help companies better understand the customer experience. Senior software engineer Andrew Platkin said many of the company’s newest features were born out of suggestions for platform enhancements made by dev team members.


What technologies power your business?

JavaScript and React power our client-facing web applications, and our client-facing mobile apps are powered by JavaScript and React Native. We use PostgeSQL for our databases, and we built our message bus with RabbitMQ. We use Ruby for our background processes and Python for our natural language processing services. We use Golang for our public-facing API.

How did your team overcome its biggest technological hurdle?

Supporting a large amount of data with many different levels of permissions is our biggest challenge. Ensuring that we offer a fast experience of consuming data via our API or client-facing applications is another tough task we’ve had to tackle. We’ve taken many different approaches to solving this problem, and our approach in still evolving as we take on larger clients.

Our existing approach uses a combination of warehousing techniques. Our priorities are to effectively limit what data is available to various users and to give a reliably fast experience for users across accounts both small and large. For the latter, we employ Redis caching, which uses a data store to limit the need to re-fetch data from our primary data stores. This allows for maximized efficiency of the data search process.

What sets your team apart, and what makes an engineer a good culture fit?

Every team member not only contributes feature work but also helps drive the technical direction of our product. Many of our newly delivered features were initially brought up by members of the engineering team as “what-ifs.” Now, those features are used by clients daily. If you enjoy solving problems and are excited by working on new ways to solve our clients’ problems, then you’d be a good fit for our team. Also, if you’d like to work with a team that chooses the right tool for the job and isn’t limited to just one method, then you’ll would be a good fit as well.


Photos via featured companies. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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