4 min read

Taming The Beast Of Complexity: Tech Leadership in Large-Scale Projects

Elena Kovalenko, Staff Software Engineer at Delivery Hero

Xena Tech Summit 2024

Elena Kovalenko, describes herself as a is the Swiss Army knife of an engineer. With expertise spanning backend and data engineering, MLOps, and DevOps, she has excelled in these areas on a large scale. As of this writing, she thrives in her role as a Staff Software Engineer at Delivery Hero’s Developer Platform, skillfully navigating both technical and organisational complexities. Her passions include exploring exotic programming and natural languages, developing more efficient and streamlined distributed systems, and enjoying hikes in the great northern outdoors.

Elena started her presentation with a brief introduction to Delivery Hero – a global food delivery company whose technical landscape has been shaped through extensive acquisition of other food delivery brands. Each newly acquired brand came with its own technical platform – an organisational unit responsible for building, shipping and monitoring customer-facing systems. Once the organisation embraced the necessity to consolidate multiple platforms into one business unit, Elena found herself in a pivotal role of a Tech Lead in a project targeted at migrating the whole organisation to the same observability vendor and laying the groundwork for the global telemetry infrastructure.

Elena outlined two groups of challenges she faced in this role. The first group was related to the area of human relationships and the need to streamline information flow between different groups of stakeholders including the project team, leadership of thirteen business units, multiple engineering teams and several observability vendors. Another group of challenges was centred around accommodating personal career goals and development aspirations as well as maintaining a healthy work-life balance. 

In her quest for mastering these challenges, Elena named several inspirational books that paved her way: Staff Engineering Path by Tanya Reilly, The Manager’s Path by Camille Fournier, The Art of Leadership by Michael Lopp, Negotiating the impossible by Deepak Malhotra, Driving Technical change by Terrence Ryan and No rules rules by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer.

Elena pointed out that the pillars of Staff Engineering that Tanya Reilly defined in the Staff Engineering Path reflect the way she ensures that her engagement is impactful in the scope of the tech lead role on the project. These pillars include the necessity to maintain the big picture, levelling up other engineers and streamlining the project execution. 

Another important principle she highlighted was leading with context and not with control, ensuring that current project context is being embraced by each member of the project team and the same information is being propagated to all stakeholders without a necessity to include Tech Lead in each discussion.

Elena shared the necessity to embrace the need to wear multiple hats in a tech leadership role and to learn how to allocate time and prioritise effectively. She mentioned that she tries to allocate at least 30% of her time to hands-on engineering work and another 30% to software architecture efforts with the rest of the time being split between the roles of project planning, business analytics and engineering leadership. She pointed out that it is crucial to select work based on own needs and resources and that she always maintains a chart showing her current capacity level in the following categories: energy, credibility, quality of life, skills and social capital. She never picks new work in the situation when her energy is already fully consumed, even if this work has a potential to boost her social capital, skills or credibility. 

Lastly, Elena stressed that while dealing with complexity on a large-scale project, it’s helpful to keep in mind that the majority of this complexity comes from human interactions. She advocated for the necessity to always assume good intentions in challenging conversations and to choose humility.

By embodying these principles, Elena found herself on a path towards tech leadership Zen, navigating the complexities of the industry with grace and resilience.

Elena Kovalenko’s talk at the Xena Tech Summit offered invaluable insights into the world of tech leadership, emphasising the importance of unity, resilience, and a forward-thinking mindset. As the tech landscape continues to evolve, her lessons serve as a guiding light for aspiring leaders seeking to make their mark in the digital age. What to get a closer look at the talk slides? View and download Elena’s deck here.

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