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?

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.

  • Do I need to be involved, or the director can make the call?
  • Where are Angular used in the product? Why should we change it now?
  • Why do we want to move to React? Any other alternatives than React are considered? Is this the right time for this change? Any other higher priority task for the team?
  • Is this a good long term bet, or we will have to move to something else again very soon?
  • How does it impact the engineering chain: architecture, build, test, deployment, release, monitoring, performance, security, troubleshooting, on call, support…

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

  • Broaden interest to all engineering areas than your known domain
  • Leverage cross team/org opportunities to drive decisions in unfamiliar area
  • Observe and think how current VP is doing it in her/his unfamiliar area.
  • Practice the skill of being a final decision maker. Turn off the thoughts that this can fall back to your manager
  • Communicate in a business focused rather than tech focused way. Observe the audience’s response. If proper, ask for honest feedback.
  • Train to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations such as making hard decisions without enough data.
  • Do some pseudo exercises. If I was the VP, how would I do it? Compare your plan with the actual plan set by the current VP.
  • Talk with VPs/mentors if possible to understand the thinking process for longer planning: input, output, constraints, process, success measurement.
  • Intentionally grab cross team opportunities and leverage them
  • Observe, think, practice pseudo scenarios, compare with actual results set by VP.

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