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24 April 2023

The non-technical skills we look for when hiring Data Engineers

Dan Fearn

I changed careers back in 2014 aged 29. From a young age I’d been interested in computers, but when I decided to switch vocation, I didn’t have much of a technical background.

During my Computing AS Level, I learned Turbo Pascal, but that was quickly forgotten, and I didn’t do any programming for the next 13 years.

Then life at Hippo began for me in 2016. I joined as a Data Engineer and was immediately surrounded by some very clever, very passionate Engineers – it was hard to not feel out of my depth for the first few months.

I look back now and remember other Engineers talking about concepts I wasn’t familiar with, things that I take for granted now when speaking with clients and Hippos at the beginning of their Engineering careers. I’m proud of how I have progressed.

Seven years on, I am now a Senior Engineering Manager. But I didn’t advance in my career because I was the best Data Architect, Analyst, or Engineer. It turns out that these attributes aren’t the be-all and end-all for a career in tech.

Yes, they are very important, but I quickly realised that other non-technical skills are also valued. I leaned on these to make sure I was adding value to my colleagues and the clients we were working with.

Today, I look for these traits in the people that apply to work at Hippo; we believe they are key components of what makes a good Data Engineer.

In this blog, I hope to explore these attributes and to show how non-technical skills are equally important in the world of Data Engineering.

A changing data climate

Motivations for getting into a career in tech are changing and will continue to do so.

I have been involved in the hiring process at Hippo for over five years and, because of the variety of work we do, have seen people applying from a wide range of backgrounds and experience.

We see applicants that are seasoned coders, people who were building their own applications for fun in their teens, through to career switchers whose entire experience has been in online courses or volunteering to do something extra at their current place of work.

As a financially rewarding and increasingly in-demand career, more and more people are making the decision to retrain.

Just because someone hasn’t been passionate about engineering from a young age, it doesn’t mean that they can’t and won’t make excellent Data Engineers.

Often what some Engineers lack in technical experience, they make up for in other skills that they have developed in their previous careers, personal lives, or studies.

Whilst anyone will benefit from enhancing their technical skills, the other skills that they can bring to Hippo are invaluable to the way we work and the value we bring to our clients. 

Unique skills for consultancy work

Previously, in my non-consultancy role, I spent most of my time liaising with accountants and other internal stakeholders. Everyone knew the business, spoke using the same industry jargon and I had a generous amount of time to learn the various components that made the business tick.

By contrast, in a consultancy like Hippo, we work across a variety of industries, each with its own terminology, guidelines, and restrictions.

Yet we are often expected to hit the ground running which makes it important that you get to understand their business and their processes as soon as possible. Those first few weeks on any project are going to involve learning new names and building relationships with, sometimes, dozens of individuals.

You don’t know what they know. They don’t know what you know.

One of core values at Hippo is ‘know your audience’; something which resonates both internally and externally.

Our clients look to us as experts and one of the main reasons they engage is because they lack the internal expertise or capacity that we can offer them. The skill for Hippo Engineers therefore lies in being able to transfer this expertise so that when we leave, they haven’t just gained a Data Warehouse or a Reporting Solution, they have gained knowledge and understanding that they didn’t have before.

On an average day I have meetings with Solutions Architects, Delivery Managers, Programme Managers, Business Analysts and Tech Leads. Knowing when to switch between technical details and high-level requirements, when to explain something in detail and when to explain a common technical concept for those that might not be familiar is key to building rapport and bringing everyone on the journey with you.

Engineers at Hippo wear many different hats. Whilst we have dedicated Business Analysts and Delivery Managers, there is no escaping that you will be involved in these processes as well.

The projects we work on are often large, meaning everyone is involved in requirements gathering. You must have the ability to put yourself in the mindset of clients and end users to understand what they want from the solution. Likewise, you must also have the ability to consider what they might want or need that they don’t necessarily know they want or need yet.

Bringing these skills (and questions) into a project allows us to deliver maximum possible value to our clients and colleagues alike.

Developing your skillset

You don’t have to come to Hippo with these skills already in tow. They will develop through time and experience and are something we look for in our Tech Lead roles.

Yes, you will be responsible for the technical decisions and the health of a project, but you also need to build trust with a client and give them assurance that we understand their requirements. To succeed we must be able to explain and pitch our solutions at the appropriate level.

One way we encourage these skills at Hippo is to give Engineers the opportunity to work as a Technical Lead on larger individual features or on our short term Corporate Social Responsibility projects or regular Engineering Day projects.

Importantly though we don’t abstract the Engineering function from our clients. We all attend meetings and actively encourage contributions to the discussion regardless of experience or how long you have worked here. Quite often I have been in meetings with clients and the most valuable suggestions or questions come from the newest person in the team.

We are all continuously learning these skills in the same way we are developing our core technical knowledge.

Having this growth mindset will ensure you stand out as an Engineer beyond your innate technical capacity.

Being able to fix the coffee machine helps too…