Scaling a collaborative engineering team: Q&A with dataxu’s SVP Engineering & CIO, Ben Katz


 

Engineers are an essential part of the dataxu team. These dedicated xukeepers are the heart of our innovation and ensure that we produce easy-to-use solutions that truly drive our customers’ success.

Our engineers invent, design, analyze, and build ever-better solutions, and while they may be, at times, more “behind the scenes”, they are the force that keeps us beating ever forward.

At the head of these dedicated individuals sits Ben Katz, our CIO and SVP of Engineering. Ben came to dataxu this spring with a long history of leading engineering and security teams.

Originally hailing from Birmingham, England, Ben brings his love of tinkering and quirky British humor to our global engineering team. We recently sat down with Ben to learn a bit more about his background and how he approaches his daily responsibilities at dataxu.

Ben Katz q & a - leading dataxu's engineering team

Tell us a bit about yourself? How did you become an engineer?

That is a bit of a mystery. (Humor, he’s got it.) On a more serious note, it runs in my family. My dad was in an electronics based field and so I started writing software as a kid. When I went to University, I got my degree in computer science and began my career writing and designing for aerospace projects. Then one day a colleague called me “an engineer”, which I hadn’t considered, as I just thought of it as building things. That was the start of my career in engineering.

More recently, I have been building large-scale consumer-facing e-commerce sites at a variety of companies—including at Boston-based start-ups Gazelle & Rue La La—and over the last two years at a financial tech startup. During my most recent position, I had the opportunity to grow the engineering team from two engineers to 20, which was quite a rewarding experience.

What made you excited to join dataxu?

When I look to join a new company, I have a simple hierarchy I follow. First is that I work for nice people. Then for a business that seems to make sense.

I joined dataxu for two reasons: all of the people that I had met at dataxu were very nice, and after discussing the opportunity with a few members of the executive team, I found that the company had a solid business model that I am excited to support.

As CIO and SVP of Engineering, what is your day like? What do you do all day?

On the surface, my days consist of answering emails and attending meetings. But the deeper reality of my role is to give advice and create a rewarding and enjoyable environment. I don’t manage people. This is something that I tell every person I interview: my job is not to tell engineers what to do. It is to give advice on what I think is a good approach in moving forward so that each and every engineer can be successful in their work.

I focus on helping engineers create a framework where they can be successful and create an environment where they have the freedom to complete projects the best way they see fit.

How will things you’ve learned in your past roles influence how you lead engineering and IT at dataxu?

I believe that a great engineer can build software to solve any problem if the problem is clearly articulated. So, my job is to create an environment that makes it easy to clearly define the problem, to hire the very best engineers, and to foster a culture that enables them to thrive.

What are your top principles for managing engineering? How do you set your team up for success?

I believe that people do their best work when they keep things in perspective, and maintain a good work/life balance. My top principles include:

  • Be helpful and kind. It’s like Paddington Bear’s aunt Lucy said: if we’re kind and polite the world will be right.
  • If the phone rings, and it’s your significant other, take the call. Because you love them and you only work here.
  • Don’t shout. Instead, have a rational, technical discussion.
  • Be honest and reasonable about what you think we can build and what it takes. I never expect engineers to do more work than they say they can do.

What’s your hiring philosophy? What do you look for in candidates?

Of course I want people who have strong technical skills and are eager to learn the latest technologies. But it is equally important that they are thoughtful, honest, and collaborative.

How do you help your employees grow?

The objective is to make sure that our engineers have relevant technical skills and are continuously advancing those skills. I strive to ensure that the skills our engineers have are so in demand in the marketplace that they can leave whenever they want, but that they enjoy working here enough that they stay.

I also aim to provide management opportunities for those who show interest. However, I’ve found that many engineers want to go deeper into technical solutions rather than manage others. You can provide technical leadership without having direct reports. So I want to make sure that those who like to write software, get to write software and avoid the mechanics of management. I’ve got no problem with you staying as technical as you like, as long as you want.

How do you like to spend your free time?

I like to do normal things, like travel places on the weekend, bike, and photography. I also have an old British sports car—a 1964 MGB—that I enjoy working on. It’s a good engineering project as it requires both precision and dedication.

What makes the dataxu engineering team stand out? What makes you excited to work with this team?

I’ve found that the dataxu team is made up of incredibly earnest, nice people who genuinely want to build good software and be successful. There are no politics. Everyone just wants to build the right software to help our customer drive success.