The Role of the VP Eng in a Startup

Nicolas Bustamante
Jun 7, 2019 · 4 min read

I wrote this article after conducting several interviews about the role of the VP of Engineering with VP Eng from amazing French companies including Drivy, Dataiku, Doctolib, Blablacar, Algolia and Jobteaser. Doctrine is hiring a VP of Engineering for our 30+ engineering team.

Why hiring a VP of Engineering?

The question usually arises when the startup grows to a team over 15 engineers. Traditionally, engineers are managed by the CTO who is usually the co-founder with the deepest technical background. He built the first product and hired the first engineers. CTO are purist, they convey a strong technical vision and usually lack strong management skills. Hence, it becomes normal to hire a VP Engineer to scale the team so the CTO can focus on building the best architecture, choosing the best technologies to serve the business strategy and communicating both internally and externally the company tech’s vision.

1. Hiring the best

When a startup grows exponentially, the main challenge is to hire the best engineers while raising the bar at each new hire. The fierce competition over tech talents forces the VP Eng to spend at least 60% of his time hiring people. Hiring is about sourcing, evaluating candidates but most of all about convincing the best talents to join the company. The VP Eng is definitely a person with a strong ability to persuade talents to join such a promising startup. When scaling that much, it’s easy to make hiring mistakes, and the VP Eng has to work relentlessly to avoid this. They must hire only the best individual contributors, but also the best executives, such as engineering managers & directors, to create a strong management team.

2. People : management, leadership and organization

Management

Engineers are usually skeptical about the impact of management. However, good managers are great coaches who empower their teammates to reach their personal and professional goals. Managers are great listeners and communicators, so they can express a clear vision and strategy for their team. As Google has shown with their « Project Oxygen », managers have an unequivocal, positive impact the output of a team. VP Engineers are responsible first to hire the best engineering managers, but also to ensure that every manager is great. The truth is that people leave their manager and their colleagues, not a company in general. The VP Eng is hence responsible for how to evaluate, reward, and compensate performance, as well as how to deal with non-performers. He/she has to be careful with protecting the talent density within their teams.

Leadership

The VP of engineering is a leader. Through their communication and their vision they are able to lead the team to achieve the product roadmap. Engineers want to work for the VP and the organization he has built. They draw a path and make harsh decisions to push the team to achieve more.

Organization

The VP of engineering has to build the best organization to maximise the output. The best people achieve incredible results only through an efficient organization. They will supervise the implementation of squads, agile methodology, OKR and any methodologies for the team to release earlier and more often. Moreover, they are the link between the company’s goals and the team.

3. Strategy

By being a vice-president they contribute to the strategy along with other VPs. The VP has to be perfectly aligned with the executive team. A good VP Eng impacts the marketing, sales and product strategies and tactics. Moreover, they have to be fundamentally aligned with the CPO for the product roadmap, the CTO for the tech vision and the CEO in order to build the organization.

How to hire a great VP of engineering?

A great VP of engineering has usually seen what a successful scale looks like. If they are from such company they have probably been promoted several times because they have delivered products that have seized significant market shares. As a great leader, they have to be able to speak openly about their mistakes and, as a great problem solver, explain how the situation was solved. The hiring part is so essential that a great VP of engineering should be able to assess quickly people’s performance and show examples of super successful performers they hired and how they managed out non-performers in a smooth way. When a great VP engineer leaves a company, some of their team members usually follow them to their next company.

A VP Engineering is ideally a great manager and a great team builder. He or she will be an excellent recruiter, a great communicator, and a great issue resolver. The VP Eng’s job is to make everyone in the engineering organization successful and to fix the issues that are getting in the way of success.

Stories from the people who build Doctrine

Nicolas Bustamante

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Inside Doctrine
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