For our first-ever Ask Engineers Anything event (aka office hours for our engineer community), I invited two seasoned software engineers from our community, Simon Mbatia and Prosper Otemuyiwa, to share their career trajectories, development experience, and any engineering career advice they had for engineers — both junior and seasoned in the field.
Simon Mbatia is a backend lead engineer at Andela with 11 years of experience in Java and other technologies. He currently leads the DXL team at Safaricom that creates backend APIs for digital channels (bots, Apps & Portals).
Prosper Otemuyiwa is a full-stack software engineer who has worked on biometric, health and developer tools, who recently co-founded Eden Life, a startup focused on improving the quality of lives in Nigeria. He also co-founded forloop, the largest developer community in Africa.
Read the recap below to get insights from these 2 experts on various subjects like how to choose a tech stack for your organization, how to advance from an IC to a lead on a team, and why soft skills are really the key to career advancement.
Missed the event and want to make sure you make it to the next one? Check out our Events page to get details about our next AMA, technical workshop, or webinar.
Q. In your experience, what traits do you need to be successful as a software engineer?
Simon Mbatia: In my view, there are two sides of the coin: the technical skillset and the soft skills.
To excel, you need both. Obviously, you’ll need to master your chosen language and framework. However, to really be successful in software engineering, you need to be empathetic, consistent, punctual and always maintain a professional manner when it comes to meetings, customer needs, and project requirements.
Q. What factors do you consider when recommending a tech stack to an organization?
Prosper Otemuyiwa: First, you have to ask who are the people in your community and what skills do they have? If you aim to scale very fast, you want to work with something like React Native or Ionic because it’s easier to find engineers who know the technology.
Second, you need to ask yourself: how many people on my current team can easily take over the codebase if you need to switch or someone falls ill?
Finally, it depends on what type of product the organization wants to build.
Q: Simon, you’re a principal engineer at Andela. What’s it like being the technical leader of a 20-person team?
Simon: This goes back to what I was previously saying about soft skills and technical skills. My main responsibility is to actively engage across design and architecture. If there are technical issues, I need to be able to jump in. I also want to make sure my skills don’t rust, so I like to commit 25% to 30% of my time to development so that I actively contribute and set an example for my team.
On the soft skill side, I manage all risks so we can deliver as promised. The things I talked about in terms of empathy and communication are crucial here, too.
Q: Prosper, a lot of people ask about Laravel. Can you share why someone would choose that framework?
Prosper: Laravel is my absolute favorite framework. Laravel is a free, open-source framework for PHP that has everything you need to develop web applications easily. I use it to flesh out my backend, but you can use it to build the entire application. It has a powerful ecosystem, and there are a lot of tools and a robust open-source community. I can go on forever about Laravel, but I’ll just stop for now.
Q: I love that you just mentioned open source. Why should an engineer contribute to open source projects?
Prosper: I actually gave a talk at the Open Source Conference about how open source changed my life, literally. Open source can help you ramp up your skills.
Many newbie developers say they want to be in a world-class environment, and the easiest way to do that is to get involved with open source projects on GitHub. The more you work with developers worldwide, the more you understand what’s going on in various codebases. I’d also add that being involved with open source brought me speaking opportunities and job offers. Basically, contribute to open source, and it will help you.
Q: Let’s shift gears and talk about career. So Prosper, how did you decide to create EdenLife instead of working for another big company? And related, how do you transition from being an IC (individual contributor) to becoming a technical team lead?
Prosper: I’ve worked with big companies, and I won’t lie: the money is really, really good. However, at some point you ask yourself: is this what I want to keep doing or do I want to do my own thing? I’m still here in Nigeria for a reason: I love Nigeria. I know it’s crazy right now, but I just love it, and I want to be able to help. Running EdenLife is one thing I can do to help.
As for how you transition from being an IC: if you want to be a team lead, apart from the necessary technical skills, you have to be able to manage developers in a way that can keep the project moving. Also, work as if you are building the product for your own company. The excellent engineering managers I know are people who have the mentality of being a founder.
Q: Simon, if you could give one piece of engineering career advice, what would that be?
Simon: When I first started, I was full-stack, but then I decided to focus on the backend because I didn’t want to be a jack of all trades, master of none. I think it’s very good to identify your strengths and focus. It’s also essential to align your skills with the global market and not limit yourself by location. I started at a Finnish Company, and now I’m lucky to be working for Andela.
The last point I want to make is that when you grow your skills, grow them professionally and do your certifications. They are not expensive. I think I literally bought one on eBay for $12. So invest in yourself, and you will reap the rewards.
Q: Any good blog recommendations?
Prosper: I love highscalability.com.
Q: Any final words?
Prosper: I feel so privileged to be in tech. You can build things that people all over the world will use. And guess what? The barrier to entry is very low. So, make the most of the opportunity. Then, as you develop yourself, always strive to be world-class, and then anything will be possible.
Simon: If you want to master your craft, you can’t stop practicing. It’s just like fitness: if you stop going to the gym, you’ll find it rough when you return. I like to tell people that you can build an eCommerce site, a chat app, or a blogging platform if they want to practice. Just don’t stop learning.