Data engineers looking to move into senior positions need more than top-notch technical skills. They have to be able to communicate effectively with both external clients and internal stakeholders, as well as have a nuanced understanding of data. “An accomplished data engineer who is working their way to a more senior role should exhibit a great sense of ownership over increasingly complex problems,” said Greg Sokol, a data engineering and analytics manager at Internet-based delivery service Instacart. “It’s difficult to balance between short- and long-term solutions, and an engineer looking to break into a more senior role should also have a robust understanding of how best to prioritize what’s ahead.” For many engineers, moving up the ladder may prove professionally challenging, but it’s also fiscally rewarding: Nationally, the average salary of a senior data engineer is over $124,000.
Candidates angling for those senior-engineering roles generally need strong SQL skills and experience, both with large volumes of data and various database technologies. James Kenigsberg, CTO of the education technology company 2U, has specific requirements for the role. “I want them to have an understanding of R or Python, but probably both would make sense,” he said. “They should have exposure to a variety of database types, whether it's Microsoft or an Amazon Web Services product like Redshift.” Also significant, he added, is having a complete understanding of basic regression and summary statistical techniques, and possessing the kind of mental tool-kit that incorporates knowledge of popular machine-learning libraries such as AForge.NET and Scikit-learn.
Sokol stressed that data engineers should always maintain a sense of urgency, even as they work their way carefully through problems, and they should be comfortable with working in a collaborative environment. Of course, that means they’ll need communication skills. Senior engineers must be able to communicate with a wide spectrum of people across an organization. And don’t forget well-honed interviewing techniques, as well. “You’ll interview stakeholders or users and, based on those conversations, look for signals in the data to figure out what you need to accomplish,” said Kenigsberg. “Before you can build, you have to be able to analyze and look for vital information.”
How to Stand Out
Data analytics is now a core value across industries. Even though the work they do is technical, most of a senior data engineer’s contribution is business-related. A standout engineer is likely one who started early at a company, and helped it grow into a market leader within a relatively short period of time. While many candidates can talk easily about programming or technology tools, the ones who set themselves apart (on paper and in-person) can illustrate a very specific case of how their work solved a problem for a business.
Win the Role
A great data engineer will always care enough about the business to research and look for signals in the data that will help their company achieve its mission. The most valuable candidates will identify business problems through exploratory analysis before anyone else, determine the cause, find the solution with the appropriate technique, and then assist in implementing that solution to production. “People who work on stuff like this are priceless to an organization,” Kenigsberg said. “They can open your eyes to things you haven't seen before. They can take something that's somewhat invisible and bring it to light and then use that algorithm to change the direction of critical business decisions.”