Jul 15, 2019
What Makes a Great VP of Engineering?
When someone becomes a VP of Engineering, also known as a VPE, there can be a bit of culture shock. Most VPEs follow a career track that starts with engineering and progresses up to managerial and directorial roles. It's easy to expect the next level up to be similar.
Mid-level management roles in engineering are still fairly hands-on and technical. A manager directly oversees the engineers who do the actual coding. But when that person moves up to the VP level, there's much more indirect management involved.
The VP still has to produce high-quality deliverables, of course, but the process involves a different and more people-focused skill set.
What are the top three priorities for a VP of Engineering?
A VPE has three primary tasks:
- Ensure that all processes run smoothly,
- Create a culture that rewards motivation and cooperation, and
- Keep everyone's eyes on the prize.
To make all of this happen, the VP of engineering needs to focus on who is doing the work and how they are doing it.
Priority #1: Hire and retain the best talent
With so many people to oversee, the VPE needs to be able to delegate to skilled and reliable directors, managers, and engineers. The VPE is responsible for hiring great people to fill those positions.
To build a successful team, VPEs have to identify critical goals and determine what skills are necessary to achieve them. They use that knowledge to attract high-caliber people and match them with positions that let them reach their full potential.
To do this well, a VPE needs a clear team blueprint that will become the foundation for hiring. Creating such a blueprint requires the methodical matching of skills with objectives and strategy. This kind of thought process parallels the logical thinking that engineers use every day, but applying that blueprint requires the VPE to go a step further.
To get buy-in from the right people, the VPE needs to be able to inspire and excite top talent. The VPE's technical background will be helpful, but the ability to make connections and get people energized is even more important. If the right people are on board, they will do the work that move a company forward.
Exceptional VPEs understand that it's not enough just to hire great people - they have to keep those people on board.
There is a widespread culture of “job hopping” in the tech industry, partially because talent is in high demand. Tech professionals field daily messages from recruiters, and part of the VPE's role is to keep these offers from looking too attractive.
Engineers change jobs so frequently for a number of reasons, one of which is novelty. If a VPE can ensure that their company’s projects are exciting to work on, their engineers won’t need to seek out greener pastures.
The need for recognition can also drive an engineer to consider a job change. A high turnover rate may indicate that a company is focusing too much on finding great people and less on appreciating who they have. A great VPE will notice this and invest more in employee recognition if he or she sees a high turnover rate.
Protection of Diversity
One of the greatest benefits of teamwork is the sharing of different ideas and viewpoints. The more perspectives and backgrounds you have on a single team, the more ideas that team can generate.
To keep their teams innovative, VPEs need to encourage and protect diversity within the organization. This means:
- Focusing on the unique skills and qualities of potential applicants
- Looking for talent in unconventional places
- Diversifying hiring panels
- Valuing non-traditional assets like the ability to overcome diversity, the integration of divergent career paths, and an unconventional education.
The more VPEs can think outside the box in terms of hiring, the more their deliverables will reflect open-minded thinking.
Priority #2: Create a culture that keeps everyone at the top of their game
When engineers become managers, deliverables output tends to be their primary focus. Then they make the leap into directorial work and realize that managing multiple teams requires a different skill set. They learn to step back from hands-on engineering management and do the necessary behind-the-scenes work.
A VP needs to take an even broader view. As a leader of leaders, he or she needs to ensure that directors and managers can guide their teams effectively. The VP of Engineering must cultivate a culture that:
- Supports productive collaboration,
- Keeps everyone moving in the same direction, and
- Affirms common core beliefs.
If there are conflicts or disconnects in the workflow, the VP must decide when and how to address them. Should anything get in the way of their engineering teams doing their best work, it is the VPE’s duty to remove those blocks.
Priority #3: See initiatives through to on-time completion
Being a great engineering leader means learning how to manage long-term workplace culture development without getting sidetracked by individual project goals.
Unlike the work of directors and managers, the VP's project work happens primarily at the executive level. They maintain lines of communication with C-suite leaders to develop a sense of where the company is going and what its overall goals for the future are. The VPE then takes that knowledge to the floor, ensuring that teams have the resources and understanding they need to move the company forward.
Priority #4: Ensure a high competence bar for individual team members.
A VPE's success correlates directly with the productivity levels that he or she is able to coax out of every team. The VPE must have high standards for individual performance and demand accomplishment from every single person under his or her leadership.
Of course, it's not enough just to demand excellence. Anyone can do that. The VPE that actually gets results is the one who actively supports their team members’ success. VPEs who do that have to maintain close communication with team leaders to understand:
- Who is exceeding expectations
- Who needs some extra support, and
- When standards need to be clarified or reaffirmed.
The process is ongoing and requires a high level of skill with positive reinforcement.
What makes a great engineering leader?
Engineering leadership is both an art and a science, especially at the executive level. A vice president of engineering must understand all aspects of a company's technical resources. They also need to use that knowledge to direct their resources to achieve the company’s goals. Here are the qualities that a VPE needs to have in order to make that happen:
1. A background in engineering
To lead effectively, a VPE needs to be able to communicate project requirements and product expectations clearly and in detail. This requires a thorough grounding in engineering, ideally with a focus on the specific work that the individual company is doing.
A VPE should come to the table with early experience in hands-on engineering. A review of his or her professional background should reveal proven technical and interpersonal skills, both of which have supported advancement through the ranks.
2. The ability to inspire and lead others
Laypeople often think of engineers as reclusive or antisocial – which is a damaging stereotype, particularly when applied to those who aspire to executive roles. A VPE must be able to not only develop a technical vision, but then use that vision to inspire others.
Naturally, VPEs must have the ability to explain their goals and requirements in technical terms, but effective leadership requires much more.
It demands that the VPE be constantly motivating their teams, making sure that they understand why their work is important, how it contributes to the company, and why they are uniquely positioned to drive those results. Only then can VPEs get excellent work from their teams.
Teams work best when their members feel like valued contributors. The best VPEs out there understand this and coach engineers toward a solution, without ever taking control or ownership of the process. The engineer feels like it was their idea that solved the problem, and walks away feeling more competent, not less.
3. The skills to communicate with stakeholders
The same skills that empower VPEs to inspire technical teams also allow them to engage with stakeholders. These conversations tell the VPE what the company's goals need to be, and how their company can stand out from the competition.
As a liaison between company insiders and investors, influencers, and even high-profile clients, a good VPE will ensure that the company stays in touch with market needs.
4. A focus on execution and a high-quality bar for deliverables
Although the VPE's role involves extensive planning and strategizing, quality of deliverables and the customer experience need to remain the primary goals of every team. It is the VPE's responsibility to circle all decisions back to optimizing the product and satisfying the client. This requires highly developed skills, including:
- Prioritization. There are always many competing tasks on the VPE's plate. He or she must be able to identify the ones that will have the greatest impact on the quality of their product.
- Decision-making skills. A VPE must be able to make high-quality decisions quickly and with confidence.
- A hands-on attitude. Sometimes a problem is "all hands on deck," and the VPE must be able to jump in and do some coding to troubleshoot and get the project out on time.
All of these qualities are evident in a VPE that puts the team's success first.
A Final Word
The most important thing for a VPE to do is to earn the trust and respect of everyone involved, from the C-suite to the project teams.
Technical experience is important, but it's only useful if the VPE can connect it to the company's goals and inspire teams to meet and exceed those goals. In time, those strong relationships are what drive growth and make the VP a successful executive.