Developer, project manager, product manager, team leader—Dominique Simoneau-Ritchie has held many roles throughout her career at companies such as IBM, BlackBerry, and Shopify. And all of her past work has perfectly prepared her for her latest position: Director of Engineering at Lever, a startup that creates recruiting software to make hiring top talent a seamless experience.
Simoneau-Ritchie has only been with the company for six months, but she has already made strides in helping to grow the company’s new office in Toronto (which is currently hiring!). “First and foremost, I’m responsible for building outstanding engineering teams,” she says. “That means recruiting, hiring, and onboarding people, coupled with establishing a culture and an environment in which they can thrive. My goal is making sure everyone on our engineering team learns something they want to learn and ships something they’re super proud of.”
Here, Simoneau-Ritchie shares her career highs and lows, what she looks for in candidates at Lever, and more.
How did you first get interested in being an engineer?
I’ve basically been an engineer all my life. I’ve had a computer since I was four, which was uncommon at the time, and I taught myself to write code when I was 14. This was pre-emojis and giphy! I was hanging out in chat channels and ended up meeting people who installed and configured Linux for fun, which led to me learning shell scripting as well.
I really wanted to study art and computer science when I went to college, but the computer courses you could take in a non-dedicated program didn’t appeal to me. After a year of combined art and basic programming, I switched into computer science. Because I had a lot of extra credit, I didn’t have to attend full time and I got a job at a startup working more than 30 hours a week. I did some marketing and technical support and taught myself how to customize the computer software they used before convincing the company to switch me onto the web development team. This was 1998 or 1999 and the startup scene in Montreal was booming. It felt like I was part of something special.
Tell us how you got into engineering management and landed your job at Lever.
I took a non-traditional path. I was a developer prototyping a new product for IBM, and my manager convinced me to take on a temporary project management role while my colleague went on parental leave. As part of that role, I worked with many software development teams of acquired startups, which had little experience with industry best practices and IBM’s requirements for shipping high-quality software worldwide. I ended up coaching and mentoring the development managers, which prepared me to be able to lead my own team. I voiced my readiness, but there was no role available. Luckily, my VP created an opportunity for me to lead the performance management for two new grads, which helped validate my decision and practice a new skill.
It wasn’t until almost a year and a half later, at BlackBerry QNX, that I was officially promoted to lead a team. I had been transparent in my aspiration, and as a result I was given a lot of space to take accountability for a small team and helping it grow. And then one day, my lead called me into his office and made it official!
I joined Shopify after BlackBerry and it was a great experience to be able to build and grow a team from scratch. When I joined, the company had about 500 people, and when I left there were more than 5,000. As a hiring manager there, I used Lever every day, so when I was ready for my next opportunity and learned Lever had opened an office in Canada, it was a no-brainer. I packed up and my entire family moved from Ottawa to Toronto.
What attracted you to the position at Lever?
I was looking for an opportunity to lead an organization in which I’d be accountable for the growth of people and teams and shipping great product, but also establishing its vision for the business and technical direction. I was first attracted by the role itself: the impact description included work I was passionate about, such as feedback and coaching, career planning, and developing new leaders. Most importantly, it also listed the growth I wanted: establishing and promoting engineering-wide priorities, including new features, system refactoring, infrastructure investments, and tool building.
I also read the company blog and discovered Lever’s values and its commitment to women in leadership. Fifty percent of the leaders identify as women, including the CEO, as do 40% of our developers.
What challenges have you faced along your career journey?
In tech, it’s easy to focus on the required technical skills when working on an individual’s growth. However, success in engineering is much more multifaceted. At one company, twice I got the feedback that I wasn’t “technical enough.” Each time, I requested specific feedback: Do I need to prototype the next feature myself? Do I need to get a deeper understanding of database performance and optimize a certain number of queries? I was never really able to get specific feedback, because ultimately, my teams were delivering. This is how I knew I wanted to be at a company that valued business impact, people management, and productivity, along with technical mastery. And, by the way, I am “technical enough.”
How do you feel Lever values you as a leader?
I often break out leadership in tech into four general categories of skills: technical, business or product, execution, and people. Lever not only values these other aspects, but also uses different interview styles to ensure that candidates are assessed for these skills. Moreover, as a manager, I’m evaluated on my ability to ship great products and make technical decisions, as well as my ability to build teams and grow people.
What do you like best about the company culture at Lever?
People make an effort to get to know each other on a personal level, even across cities. One practice that Lever introduced me to is the “check in.” At weekly meetings, the management team would ask each person to share a personal story or highlight about their weekend or the previous week before kicking off the agenda. I liked the practice so much that we now do it at our own weekly team meetings.
What does a normal day in your job look like?
A lot of my time is spent on reviewing resumes and interviewing candidates, working with individuals to help them onboard successfully, and helping the team to develop new processes to increase productivity. In some cases, that means asking hard questions to encourage developers to invest in improving their workflows and tools. We have standup every morning, and I usually have a one-on-one with someone each day. If we’re lucky, it’s a sunny day and we go for a walk in downtown Toronto to get some fresh air.
I also try to set aside some time to think about our strategy for the API and integrations. Some days, I’ll learn more about the issues with our platform by digging into Zendesk or Jira, and other days, I’ll read about how other companies have adopted a platform model.
What do you love most about your job?
Getting to know people on a personal level and helping them achieve their goals. I especially like developing mid-level developers who are good at programming. They are the ones who benefit the most from being mentored on ownership, execution, and understanding the business impact of what they work on. With the right projects and accountability, they can go from a skilled developer to a developer who can impact the entire company in the most impressive way. It’s so rewarding to work with them to increase their impact!
What qualities do you look for in talent at Lever?
I look for candidates who have taken the initiative to solve problems outside of what was expected of them or have solved problems in a unique way. Maybe they automated a manual step in the deployment process to help everyone work more efficiently, or they proactively identified an opportunity to build and implement something that would delight customers. One person we hired has a lot of experience mentoring interns, and had created a Harry Potter-themed points system to motivate the people he was working with.
One of the Lever values is Don’t Trust Comfortable. Instead of looking for people who have performed exactly the role we’re trying to fill, I actively look for candidates who have some of the skills and have also taught themselves something new and invested in their continuous learning and growth. It doesn’t necessarily have to be relevant to their role, since the ability to teach yourself a new skill is absolutely transferable. For example, someone on the team taught himself Elixir for fun, despite not having any reason to use it at work. Overall, we hire for the impact people can have.
What tools are new hires given to succeed at Lever?
Once hired, it’s also about creating a safe and inclusive space for people to be themselves. Everyone at Lever is encouraged (but not required!) to openly share their individual development plans. This helps foster a culture in which others understand how they can support each other’s growth. During Ramp Camp, our onboarding, we also learn and practice peer coaching, which is a tool we can leverage to help better define goals that are connected and clear, improve feedback with each other, and hold one another accountable. As a leader, I will never be able to mentor my people in all the ways they need to improve. Often, peers are best for helping level themselves up, especially when it comes to developing technical skills.