Director to VP Engineering: what is expected and how to prepare?

Director to VP of Engineering

A lot of engineering leaders made it to the director level and now wonder what it looks like at a VP level, and even more importantly, how to prepare for that level in day to day job as a director.

I was there and shared the same curiosity. Now that I took both a senior director role in a $1.5B unicorn startup and a VP role in a seed stage company, I am glad to share thoughts on this topic.

I am not claiming that I am fully at a VP level yet. But learning, thinking and sharing are a continuous journey, in my view, than only one ending note.

(Note, the titles mean difficult scopes and team sizes in small, medium and big companies. But I believe if we extract those details, there are common patterns.)

What will be different at a VP level?

You will lead some teams that you have little domain expertise

At director level, you often lead a few highly cohesive sub teams. It falls into ONE domain area such as backend, frontend, devops, data, ML, platform, test, or SRE. You are a domain expert and often have been working in this field for 5+ or 10+ years. Accordingly, you can often draw from experience, easily review design proposals, discuss deep tech problems, and can mentor all levels of engineers from junior to principal on technical matters.

At a VP level, this will change. You will lead at least some team whose domain is unfamiliar to you.

The key of success now relies on

Find the right leader(a director, senior manager, or senior director) for that sub team so you can delegate confidently

If you are in a big company and can rely on peer teams for helping this hiring, it would be easier. In many situations, you have to rely on yourself. That means knowing what this role is about, the skill set needed, crafting the right job description, creating the right interview process, and evaluating correctly candidates. It can be challenging, as you do not know what you do not know.

There are a few ways to handle this. You can leverage your networks, and ask some experts to help in the process. If unsure, take time to interview more candidates. Given time, naturally there will be learnings, a better understanding of this domain and how this hire should look like.

Manage by asking right questions

Let us say one UI dev director comes to you and suggests moving from Angular to React. Neither technology is familiar to you. How do you discuss this topic? Ask the right questions that help you decide.

Your manager and peers might not have engineering background

In a director role, you can consult with your manager on technical decisions, and fall back to your manager, who is often more experienced in engineering. Not any more at a VP level. The manager could be a CEO without an engineering background. Peers could be sales, marketing, customer support, finance, HR…

The immediate impact is that the communication with them has to focus on business rather than technical. The common knowledge we deem everyone knows within engineering should be assumed unknown to this group of audience.

Planning focuses on much longer horizon

The planning span is now at least a year, often several years. The focus is to align the engineering team with the company and product vision, grow the team with the right skill set, hiring at the right pace, keep engineering execution and culture strong.

I am brief here, as these topics are heavy and worth separate articles.

You will represent engineering to interact with other orgs

Now you are the top leader of engineering org. Both inside and outside of the company look at you to form their opinion for the engineering org. The requirement for soft skill reaches a new scale: look, speak and interaction.

You decide how to build the team and how to drive the culture

As a VP, you have a lot of freedom to make decisions and build the team your way. One side, it is exciting to be the final decision maker for many things. Another side, it is also stressful, as you will be ultimately responsive for the consequence of these decisions. Sometimes, in my own experience, it can feel scary and a bit lonely.

Deciding the engineering cultures and driving it is on your shoulder. This is a clear difference from the director level.

You are part of senior and executive leader group

There will be some social factors to be accepted and fit into this group. From the outside, it may look challenging. My experience is that it is quite doable. No need to overthink about it.

The advice is to be yourself, confident, relax, and give it some patience.

How to get there?

At the current director role, I think the following will help you build up skills for the VP level.

You will lead some teams that you have little domain expertise

Your manager and peers might not have engineering background

Planning focuses much longer horizon

You will represent engineering to interact with other orgs

You decide how to build the team and how to drive the culture

You are part of senior and executive leader group

No need to rush on this now. You will get ready when you reach there.

Conclusion

https://www.brendanreid.com/blog-1/2018/1/2/4-keys-to-move-from-director-to-vp-level is an insightful article on this topic. In comparison, what I wrote above is more detailed and from an engineering leader’s perspective, in my view.

From director to VP is an exciting journey. Hope this article sheds some good light. Love to hear your thoughts and experience.

VP Engineering

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