People and Culture

Meet Iliyan Lesev: How a software engineer became a people lead

Below, we explore Iliyan’s journey with Zühlke and hear his top tips for personal development.

5 minutes to read
With insights from...

Insights in brief

  • Explore Iliyan’s journey to a senior role at Zühlke.

  • Discover how Iliyan overcame the challenges to become a ‘people lead’.

  • Hear Iliyan’s top tips to others who want to grow and take on senior roles.

Iliyan Lesev’s resume reads like a case study in motivation and ambition. 

He’s had an extensive career as a software engineer, is in the final stages of a master’s in project management, and after just a year at Zühlke, has added being a ‘people lead’ to his impressive list of credentials. 

But as Iliyan explains, alongside his achievements there have been challenges along the way. 

These are lessons he’s keen to share with others who might be on a similar career path – those in junior roles who want to fully realise their career ambitions and are interested in a leadership role. 

Below, we explore Iliyan’s journey with Zühlke and hear his top tips for personal development. 

What made you want to join Zühlke?

Iliyan discovered Zühlke through an event he attended. The company’s culture in particular stood out. 

“Even during the interview process, it was clear how important culture was. Not just whether I was the right fit for Zühlke, but whether I could also add something. That balance of ‘culture fit’ and ‘culture add’ was really refreshing and unique.”

Iliyan is also keen to point out that what he likes about Zühlke’s culture is how it practically impacts his work day-to-day. 

“Zühlke’s structure complements its culture, and it means your ideas can quickly reach the right people – no matter how senior they are. Being able to freely express my opinions, and know my ideas can actively influence change, is something I’ve really valued.”

What does being a ‘people lead’ actually mean?

There are two parts to being a ‘people lead’ at Zühlke, according to Iliyan. 

“First, a ‘people lead’ helps people develop technical skills by actually helping them through projects. This means doing things like pair programming sessions and code reviews.”

“The other side is focused on mentoring, career coaching, and things like that. So you’re helping with personal and technical development, and both sides are as important as the other.”

How did Zühlke help you on your career development journey?

For Iliyan, the preparation for senior and leadership roles starts well before you have official leadership training. 

“At Zühlke, the culture is not to point fingers when things go wrong. It’s about actionable advice, and working together to find a resolution. That’s a great foundation for leadership.”

But as Iliyan explains, there’s also structured support to help you grow into leadership roles. 

“I got to set my own career goals but also got concrete advice on how to get there. Really specific skills and steps to ensure I was always supported. I also received a lot of support from the managing director here, in Bulgaria. Alongside skills in people management, she encouraged me to take more ownership within the company. A big part of that was organising some internal events. I had to go there and connect with 20 different people who were pretty high up in the company.”

This had a really positive impact on Iliyan’s development.

What were the challenges on your career development journey?

Iliyan’s progress has not come without challenges and he’s eager to talk about the hard work he had to do to overcome them. 

“Communication was a challenge for me. I’ve come a long way but before, I would focus on my technical skills and leave others to do the talking or presenting. I pushed myself to be more proactive, to take opportunities, and to speak up.” 

The other challenge for Iliyan was developing some of the soft skills vital for effective leadership.

“I work hard to develop a fully empathetic leadership style. I really want to know what my people need. Practicing empathy can seem easy when others talk about it, but it takes a lot of effort to bring it into everyday interactions. I’m now more confident in my ability to do that but you have to keep honing and improving all the time too.”

What advice do you have for others who want to grow into senior / leadership roles?

Iliyan is only too keen to share his advice with others taking on the challenge of moving into senior roles.  

“When you’re at the junior and mid level, it’s vital you build your technical skills. It’s not about drilling down into a specific technology. It’s about really understanding technical concepts and approaches. That way, you can use technology to deliver concepts, not the other way round.”

“At the junior and mid level, work to become autonomous – build trust in your skills and seek opportunities to take ownership of projects. This isn’t about working in isolation or pretending you don’t need help – collaborating and seeking advice is crucial. It's more about showing confidence in what you know, and having a structured approach to what you don’t.”

As Iliyan explains, this technical foundation allows you to push towards senior positions.

“The next stage? Work on your communication skills – great leaders are great communicators. Communication skills are also fundamental for building up your professional network, and getting to know people.” 

“Finally, build empathy. Work to understand people, their needs, fears, and motivations. That’s the key to really helping people, and ensuring your guidance and advice adds real value. It’s also a key part of others seeing you as a leader.”

What’s next for you on your career path?

“Zühlke always finds a way to keep you stimulated and challenged. Right now, my focus is providing the best leadership I can, so I can inspire others the way my leaders inspired me.”