Photo by Oleg Sidorenko

“What does a VP of Engineering do, again?”

Co-authored by Raffi Krikorian & Dave Loftesness

“You mean he’s like an engineer-whisperer?”

Sorta.

Who is asking?

This question shows up over and over. And from all sides:

  • the CEO who thinks her company is at the size that she should be “thinking” about hiring a VPE — the company is getting too big, and all of engineering still reports to her;
  • the CTO who doesn’t want to manage people directly and is trying to figure out whether he needs a VPE to pair with — he feels that the best use of his time is to be the “chief architect”, “lead developer”, or “head prototyper”. The CTO often complains that he isn’t good at managing people, he isn’t scaling as a people manager as the team grows, that he finds people management is stressful, or he has no interest in doing it, and it’s a distraction;
  • the first time VPE that is trying to figure out what she should be doing with her time — one-on-ones have already been scheduled, the current sprint has been planned, but what else should she be doing?; and, finally
  • engineers who are concerned that the company wants to bring in “another level of management” — what does this do to their day to day? They often wonder what they’ve done wrong, or, whether they should be concerned that the company is getting “too large”.

Let’s pull this apart.

How is a VPE measured?

Execution. Full stop.

Everybody is going to be looking at the VPE to make sure he is making the trains run on time. Can he direct a team to ship high-quality software efficiently and on a predictable schedule? The VPE job is not to actually execute everything by himself, but rather to set up an environment so that execution gets easier, better, and faster over time.

So… how?

There are innumerable ways, but it can be boiled down to three priorities, in order:

  1. establishing focus;
  2. leading and designing the engineering org; and
  3. representing engineering at the leadership level.
Focus starts from the top

Focus starts from the top. Keeping a priority list of what are the most important things to do, and what success means when we hit those goals are incredibly important. This is the best short-term lever the VPE has to affect execution. Arguably, making decisions about what engineering should not be working on is more important than what they should be working on. Given the size and stage of the company, establishing focus may mean stepping outside of engineering for a bit — for example, it may mean focusing on recruiting or improving the engineering recruiting process. But, either way, the VPE is in charge of making sure more bullets are put behind fewer targets.

Lead the engineering team

The second part of the job is to lead the engineering team. Her job is to get to know the people on the team, council each one of them, and inspire each one of them to excellence. At the team level, the VPE plays a huge role in recruitment, coaching the team’s performance, enforcing accountability, and in some cases, making the hard call about when a member of the team has to go.

How do we work?

He also needs to be able to answer, “How do we do work?” especially at scale. What metrics should we use to measure success? How do we select and manage to those metrics and goals? Does the team do pair programming or code reviews? What is the sprint length? What do we do about performance reviews? How do we interview new people?

She needs to be ensuring the team is moving faster and faster as more people are being added, and not, instead, being bogged down by the size of the team. Active care needs to be given to setting up the engineering team’s structure. If not done, the team instead will grow “organically” and likely without any strategy or thought for the long term. The VPE needs to make sure there is logic and purpose to who is responsible for what, how sub-teams are formed, and who is accountable for what. Extra focus on this means that the team can build itself upon a more solid foundation.

Longevity of the team is very important, and one way to get this is to make sure the team is set up for long-term technical success. This means ensuring the right tools are chosen, that technical debt is managed, and the right long-term software is being built. Bad initial choices compound fairly quickly as the team grows or as the company moves faster. The team needs to take care, and to use experience, to explicitly choose to optimize for throughput and not latency. Success here means that teams accelerate even as technical complexity is added. Systems need to be built in the right way and in ways that are easy to diagnose, fix, and mitigate — all with low support costs. To be clear, it’s not that the VPE is doing all these personally, but, he has to ensure that somebody is governing them. Very practically: if the team has a CTO, then the VPE needs to ensure that the CTO is delivering this for his team. If the team doesn’t, then the VPE needs to find somebody to own this.

Representing engineering at leadership

Finally, the VPE, as the executive representing engineering, should be exercising a strong voice in the company’s plans. Nobody wants to waste that team’s time — wasting its time is expensive, and spending a lot of time on a product is fairly demoralizing if it’s later deemed that the product is misguided. The VPE should be aligning engineering’s goals with the rest of the company’s goals and making sure that his team is allocated and set up well to coordinate with the rest of the company; the entire company has needs, constraints, and priorities, and the VPE should be making sure his team is well integrated with all of those. In companies where product managers don’t roll up into engineering, the VPE has to play a key role in ensuring the team has a clear and actionable product roadmap to execute against, and she also needs to ensure that her team is able to provide input into the roadmap or run the risk of engineers feeling disempowered. Doing this isn’t easy, and it’s a lot of relationship building. The VPE should be building and managing strong relationships with the product team and with the executive team as a whole so that everybody is on the same page.

Representing engineering also means making sure the engineering team’s perspective is reflected in the matters of company governance. The VPE should be going to bat for what matters or effects engineering with regards to the business operations (salaries, paperwork, etc.). This is all “laying tracks” — making sure that the train’s journey is clear so that engineering doesn’t have to re-do work, nor does engineering have to worry about the administrative minutia.

What does being an engineer-whisperer have to do with it?

If the above are the tactics, what’s missing is the style.

The vast majority of engineers are happiest when they are shipping. They each want to have all distractions out of his way, so he can be heads down and getting things done. To do this, the VPE, or, any engineering leader, should strive to make an environment where people want and do the best work of their lives.

The VPE has to lead the entire team with a compelling vision while still be able to relate and inspire on an individual basis. She has to get a good feeling of what makes the people in engineering tick. What motivates and drives them? What are everybody’s dreams and aspirations? A simple way to think about this is to realise that, in all likelihood, this job will not be any one of her engineers’ last. In addition, the world is small, and paths will cross again. What does each of these engineers want to be when she grows up? How can the VPE use this time, when these engineers have agreed to work for her, to help further each one of these people’s goals?

At scale, it will be difficult to know this for everybody in engineering. But a good VPE can focus on figuring out who are the natural leaders in the group, who are the high potential people who are going to lead in the future, and really understand their goals and values. Also, it means establishing a clear set of guidelines that help build a desired engineering culture. Over time this means that he knows the jiu jitsu points, so with little pressure he can affect large change. One-on-ones are an essential tool here, but make sure to avoid talking about project status, and focus on feedback (positive and constructive), personal goals, and aspirations. When those natural leaders are identified, the VPE has to groom them to lead, own, and help him scale through delegation. It’s easier to distribute responsibility to multiple natural leaders once all these are in place.

Who makes a good VP of Engineering?

There isn’t a single answer here. Companies are different, and each may need different things from their engineering leaders at different stages of growth. Some really enjoy the building aspect of the early days of a company, some others revel in organizational development, yet others in managing a complex technology portfolio.

A good candidate has a base set of characteristics: persistence, people management skills, technical acumen, and a backbone. These never change, no matter the stage of the company. These characteristics will let a VPE get through those top three priorities no matter what are the challenges: focus comes through persistence, people management skills and technical acumen contribute to leading and designing the engineering organization, and a backbone means that he can represent engineering to the company.

Depending on the stage or the situation within the company, there are other sets of skills that may be layered in. Some companies may need a VPE to be a recruiting machine to help build the team. Another company may need a VPE with extremely good product experiences. A company at the precipice of rapid growth may need somebody with experience scaling teams and with good organization design skills.

In the end, the company needs someone who can help engineering execute. Who you need depends on where your challenges are, what roadblocks need to be removed, and what advantages need to be extended. An ideal candidate, given sufficient context, should be able to articulate at least an initial approach to improving execution, and a plan for measuring progress. And ultimately be willing, even eager, to be held accountable for that progress.

Don’t forget about style, though. If the trains run on time, but are dirty, smelly, or poorly maintained, or if the conductors hate their jobs — then none of the above may matter. The VPE may look like he is a success for a while, but, it may eventually turn to failure.

What should you look for? You should look for a VPE who can inspire engineers to get the trains to run on time.

Thanks to Mike Krieger (Co-Founder Instagram), Peter Morelli (VPE Lyft), Ron Pragides (SVP Engineering BigCommerce), Glen Sanford (engineer extraordinaire), and Joe Xavier (VPE Mixpanel) who all contributed to this post. We miss working with each of you.