A director of engineering oversees and guides an organization's engineering department, including ensuring that engineering goals line up with the organization’s mission and priorities. In many cases, these executives are involved in administrative, financial, and human resource functions within the department.
The duties of a director of engineering vary among enterprises in terms of scope of responsibilities, according to leading job site Indeed.com. Some common responsibilities include overseeing teams, managing departmental budgets, designing engineering strategies, verifying project compliance with engineering best practices, hiring department engineers, collaborating with company stakeholders, and updating department policies and procedures.
Engineering directors also have different duties based on their specialty, according to Indeed. Aside from engineering, these executives must possess skills of critical reasoning, leadership, stress management, communication, and team collaboration.
To find out what’s involved in becoming a director of engineering, we spoke with Nina Bhatti, a director of engineering at Google Cloud Platform.
Bhatti attended the University of California, Berkeley, and majored in computer science and mathematics. She then attended the University of Arizona, where she earned a Master of Science degree and PhD in computer science. She wrote her dissertation on networking protocols for fault-tolerant distributed systems.
Like many other technology professionals, Bhatti did not originally plan to establish a career in the field. “I arrived at U.C. Berkeley thinking that I would major in biology, but had taken some programming in high school and used it when I was an intern working in biology research,” she says. “I took computer science and really enjoyed learning about the concepts and the power of being able to build something I just imagined. The classes were intriguing, and I found myself much more interested in building than learning biology facts.”
Because Bhatti was exposed to many different cultures, countries, and languages as a young person, “the unknown and new is interesting to me,” she says. “I didn’t count on having all the knowledge ahead of time. I am comfortable with technical and business risk. I have always found building the first-of-a-kind to be intriguing, which has definitely translated into my current role.”
Learning on the job
Following graduation, Bhatti went to work at Tektronix, a maker of test and measurement products, as a software engineer. She spent four years there before moving on to a role as a lecturer at the University of Arizona, where she taught senior-level courses on data structures, C, and Unix programming with an emphasis on architecture, algorithms, and documentation.
In 1996, Bhatti was hired as a lab researcher at the Broadband Information Systems Lab operated by technology provider HP. Among other projects, she worked on web server optimization for ecommerce workloads and created performance technologies to stabilize response time and throughput. She also patented new techniques for quality of service performance management.
After about four years, Bhatti left HP to briefly work for mobile technology company Nokia as a senior IP technologist. She later returned to HP to work as a department scientist at the Mobile and Media Systems Lab, where she researched and developed technologies for video conferencing, media servers, and end-to-end performance in networking applications.
In 2005, Bhatti took the role of principal scientist at HP Labs, where she pioneered a co-innovation program with Fortune 50 customers. Then, around 2010, she became a research manager at HP’s Print Production Automation Lab, where she led multiple research teams in developing color measurement applications for camera-equipped mobile phones. In that role, she was responsible for technology strategy, commercialization, IP protection, customer relationships, and technical leadership.
Becoming a director of engineering
Bhatti's interest turned to cloud technologies during a year-long stint as product manager for cloud and mobility products at HP, leading product development and the deployment of cloud and mobility services and applications from concept to launch.
In 2012, she was named chief performance architect for cloud and mobile printing systems at HP, where she devised and delivered a comprehensive end-to-end performance measurement architecture to locate performance bottlenecks and identify opportunities for improvement.
A couple of years later, Bhatti founded a retail technology startup called Kokko that’s focused on computer vision and color science. The company's mission is to bring accurate color matching applications to consumers, which supports greater consumer confidence in online shopping.
Then, in 2019, she was hired for her current role directing competitive performance benchmarking and compute efficiency for Google Cloud Platform. “For the competitive performance role, I have a team that continually benchmarks our products against competitors to deliver us insights about how customers experience our products in an open cloud environment,” she says. “We help keep everyone honest by benchmarking from the customer perspective in GCP and other cloud providers.”
What a director of engineering does
In her role as the director of engineering for compute efficiency, Bhatti works to provide high-quality customer experiences with products by offering global capacity when and where customers need it. One of the challenges of her role is providing capacity without wasting resources. “Cloud is a perishable inventory business, and we’re building capacity all the time to host new and existing products—which means we have to make pragmatic business decisions about capacity and product availability to meet our customer’s needs,” she says.
As for a typical day at work, “I spend most of my time in meetings wrestling with complex issues to clarify situations and make decisions,” Bhatti says. “I rely on subject matter experts to do much of the deep technical diligence I used to do myself, and hope that I can be a thought partner for them. I attend a lot of technical reviews and pose questions that I hope will all help us understand the systems better. I often notice patterns that remind me of previous systems or solutions I studied or worked on.”
Bhatti works across many teams and spends a lot of time thinking about what can go wrong, in hopes that her team can mitigate potential issues before they become a problem. “I’m also always thinking about the best ways for us to measure or assess our progress,” she says. “I spend a lot of energy challenging why we do things a certain way, and consider if there are opportunities to rethink our technology stack and processes.”
On being a woman in engineering
“There are two clear moments where I felt inspired to continue this career journey—and both of them came from powerful women in my field,” Bhatti says. The first was when she attended a careers event featuring Jan Cuny, a computer scientist noted for leading efforts in broadening participation in computing.
“I was considering whether or not I wanted to pursue my PhD, and felt intimidated to take the leap because it would require committing to a program that I wouldn’t fully complete until I was in my thirties,” Bhatti says. “And if I went for a professorship, I would be in my late thirties by the time I secured tenure. This seemed extremely daunting, particularly as a woman looking to eventually start a family. To my surprise, however, Jan provided words of encouragement. She cautioned that there was no doubt it would be hard, but also stressed it would be manageable.”
Cuny also emphasized the importance of gathering a strong support system to help along the way, Bhatti says. “It was the first time that I had heard anyone directly address how to manage the hardships of being a woman in this career, and it made me feel empowered to move forward because she said it was doable,” she says. “I didn’t have any woman role models in my field at the time, so hearing her story was exactly what I needed to know that I could do it.”
The second memorable moment was listening to a talk by Penny Herscher, who at the time was CEO of a software company. “She interviewed a dozen female CEOs at the top of their game, and said they all had one thing in common: their ability to find balance,” Bhatti says. “She noted that the best leaders managed the demands of the job by prioritizing themselves first. She told the audience a personal story about how she suffered a stroke because she was essentially surviving on wine and chocolate—and it was the wakeup call she needed to know that she had to find balance to be her best self, both in and outside of work.”
Hearing tips from Herscher on how women CEOs survive their jobs “was an important turning point for me, and taught me that women can have it all—but not all the time.” Bhatti says. “Ultimately, it is moments like these that humanized being a woman in engineering for me. Their transparency showed me that pursuing this career was hard, but possible.”
Advice for others: Know what motivates you
“I have been fortunate enough to have had supporters that gave me the courage to take the next step in my career,” Bhatti says. “’You’d be great’ and ‘you should take that role’ are powerful words that make a big difference for me. When people I respect told me they thought I could do something, it gave me the confidence to pursue things I otherwise would have been intimidated to pursue.”
Finding the right career starts with knowing your strengths and what makes you love to come to work, Bhatti says:
We spend a lot of our lives at work and there should be aspects of your job that you feel are a privilege to perform. For me, solving unique and new challenges on the next frontier is exceptionally motivating. I get to work with brilliant people, collaborating towards a shared purpose and solving massive-scale technical and business problems. It is an incredible intellectual and organizational challenge that I am passionate about tackling each and every day. And I encourage people to find what makes them just as enthusiastic and motivated. Find something that you’re inspired by and share it with others. Ultimately, true creativity comes from loving the mission that you’re working towards.