Hiring a VP of Engineering who can take your product to the next level isn’t going to be easy. If you’re new to the market, your team is most likely a close-knit, hardcore lot of developers led by a couple of seasoned founders, and they aren’t going to let just anyone lead the technology organization. Or maybe your company’s model is too engineering-focused and still relatively new and untested. Engineering is, of course, one of the most critical functions at a tech company. In fact, as every company becomes a tech company in some form, it’s vital to every company. And while potentially, there are enough leaders in the technical product function, from architects to CTOs, the VP or head of engineering is the executive that grows and manages the engineering team, responsible for ascertaining the time it will take to deliver products or features, and delivering quality releases on schedule.
What does a good VP of engineering bring to the table?
When you understand the role only regarding logistics, you oversimplify its scope, missing the many other significant and nuanced roles a good VP of engineering provides. It’s challenging to figure out delivery dates and prioritize development by group consensus while scaling an organization. And this without taking setting the right culture into consideration, which is central to retaining engineering talent that might otherwise migrate elsewhere. In today's market, it’s easier to move than stay for them. A good VP of engineering owns it all while giving the team transparency into the process. You’ll have to deal with every internal issue that comes up from not having a competent VP if you hold off too long on the hiring, like a poorly assembled team, broken process, an imbalance between product and engineering management, a frustrating engineering culture, etc.
Most CEOs are looking for someone like themselves, somebody who's willing to put in twelve to fourteen hours a day and weekends if required. They want someone hands-on with strong coding skills, someone who has a vast network to hire from and can manage and grow the team from fifteen engineers to five hundred. This person is a rare, almost impossible find.
Someone who can scale a team will need to come with some experience of doing it, which comes with age, and these people often also come with families and can’t give you those hours. And founders seem to see coding as translating to somebody being technical, but this shouldn't be the requirement for which you scout for a VP. Hiring based solely on popular examples of success and the pedigree you think a competent candidate needs to come with is another mistake. Google is a well-talked-about success story for most people, so hiring someone from Google seems like the right idea. But you can't replicate Google’s success just through one hire.
Instead, design the role you want to fill by outlining the specific pain points and problems you’re trying to solve, and then determine your requirements and measure them rigorously. Your requirements are sure to change over time if you don’t measure them, particularly as you interview candidates and like one thing more in one guy and something else in another. Your job description will begin to take another shape to accommodate people. But if you have your primary need outlined, when you look to hire, you'll make sure you have the conviction that your hire can fulfill that requirement. You want to watch for a pattern of that skill in the candidate’s background, during the interview process.
The characteristics that define a good VP of engineering
The output of any engineering organization is ultimately the product. But the signs of a well-functioning organization is not just building a high-quality product but also making the predetermined dates and accurately forecasting updates to the timeline as it changes. A good VP must have a full command of the software development process and ensure the correct process is in place and followed. Initially, the candidate must have the skill and be willing to roll up his or her sleeves and fix some bugs. As you grow, you need someone who can take on the job of a conductor. They needn't know how to each instrument in the orchestra must be played, but they have to know how it should sound, and when it’s out of tune or out of key. The secret here is his or her ability to work with a team, to communicate effectively, to make sure the vision is translated. Basically, the VP needn't have to code on a day-to-day basis, but a familiarity with technology at every level of the company can be the clutch. After all, engineers respect other engineers.
However, the power of a good VP shouldn't be reduced to managing releases and product features alone. The functions encompass building an engineering team and laying down a company's engineering culture, especially when it gets to the size where middle management is needed. And while the markers of skill level for strong engineers are straightforward, like coding tests, open source credibility, and more; management happens to be a more qualitative domain. A good VP of engineering must hence be able to figure out who the right managers for the team are, hire them, and be able to hone that skill set over time. Building this team won't be a static thing. And as the team scales with a growing company, it's easy to lose the culture of the initial group. A VP of engineering must understand how to balance the present culture with the evolving one. Take a look at a candidate's existing and former team to assess a VP of engineering beyond their on-paper qualifications: Did they meet scheduled release dates? Did they have a sensible or haphazard process? Was there too much discord as in, was it creative friction or unproductiveness between teams? The groups they manage, best reflect the engineering managers.
Most people who have been working with large corporations for a while now have either never learned or forgotten how to get the job done on a budget of anything less than insane and a two-year development cycle. Similarly, be wary of people from a company’s research division or academia. When it actually comes down to building robust production systems, they tend to be too technical. Look instead for candidates, ideally already in an engineering management role, who have delivered at high growth, early-stage companies.
Be careful with people who appear to be dogmatic about unreasonable stuff and make statements like "People who use Ionic instead of React Native are stupid." Also, any candidate who suggests you rewrite everything in another programming language or framework is probably a technology fanatic. Especially without having seen the existing code, advocating a complete rewrite is not a sign of pragmatism, a key trait for getting things done. You see, almost anything has been and can be built in any language. Complete rewrites that never really get completed have lead to the demise of too many companies.
If you do come across a great engineer, resist the temptation to make them the VP of Engineering or CTO. Great engineers will generally have a self-directed approach to work. It takes a pretty different skill set to manage people and process than it does to build stuff. That is not to say that a great engineering hire can’t step up and fill that position, but it’s much better to let that happen organically than to force it.
Look for people who prefer the simple to the ostentatious. Most reliable, simple, quick-to-build systems could also have been built as a slow, complicated, bug-laden piece of software too. Thanks to your simple design, each line of code that doesn’t exist is a line that won’t slow your system down, has no bugs and won’t take time for new engineers to comprehend. Can your candidate talk about how he or she designs things to be simple, about what was compromised to ensure the system remains simple, etc.?
End of the day, typically a VP is measured by how much productivity they can inspire out of their team. What separates the good from the great is getting this done in a creative way that breeds loyalty. So look for people that others follow. A good VP will have a following. They travel in packs, surrounded by good guys who move with them. This one of the best ways to determine top candidates. These guys will always have an approach to make developers productive. Interviews while necessary, can reveal a lot less. A smart candidate will have all the right answers, but there’s no way to know if they did all of it without reference checks. Nothing can replace a thorough reference check. Be wary of extremes (great and horrible reviews) though and instead look for references that paint a consistent picture of the candidate. Aside from references, the next best thing to look at is the track record. Past experiences, products, and projects can be indicators of future success when read the right way.
Lastly, remember, there are advantages to hiring a first-time VP. They are the ones who will go that extra mile to achieve that win. It’s their single shot at building a name as a great VP, and seasoned executives will cost more money. Add to that, if they’re jumping from a large company to a small one they may not be able to handle life in the trenches. Most companies look for people who have done it all before, but just because at the VP level, a candidate is untested needn’t mean they can’t step into those shoes successfully.
In a nutshell, a good VP of engineering brings sanity to the whole process keeping in mind a unified view of the broader objectives. You’ll soon come to learn that finding the right VP for you, is about modulating expectations. Every company starts out dreaming of changing the world. Very few do. You must have a sense of self, and where you stand in the market. Very few companies can get their pick. Today, if you’re a seven out of ten, you might have to settle for a seven out of ten for your VP of Engineering, but he should be a person who can get you to an eight or nine.
Also, many young companies seem to believe they don’t require a VP of engineering yet since their engineering team is either too small or sufficiently senior. But I can't overstate the importance of the role more. The right VP of engineering will provide the backbone necessary to withstand the changes in the market, pressures of the business, at the same time growing your company without allowing it to crumble under the weight of a process that’s ad hoc. Independent of size, putting in place the right process and the right culture is one thing that has to be endemic to your organization, and this is precisely what hiring a strong VP of engineering at the right time will do. The real challenge is being able to anticipate and prepare for this moment. You’re looking at four or more months before getting a VP settled even in the best case scenario, so you cannot be waiting until problems crop up to start the search. And you’re less likely to settle for an average candidate if you give yourself enough time to breathe. Happy hunting.