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 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…

Your manager and peers might not have engineering background

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

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

You will represent engineering to interact with other orgs

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

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

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

How to get there?

You will lead some teams that you have little domain expertise

  • 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.

Your manager and peers might not have engineering background

  • 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.

Planning focuses much longer horizon

  • Talk with VPs/mentors if possible to understand the thinking process for longer planning: input, output, constraints, process, success measurement.

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

Conclusion

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

VP Engineering