What Your VP of Engineering Wants You to Know
A few developers working hard can get a lot done, but it takes a well-rounded team with different skills and roles to build and grow a successful software product and company.
But all too often, we find that our teams or team members are working in silos, not fully understanding what others are doing (or why). With this series, we’ll be digging into what the rest of your team wishes you knew, to help you understand and work better with them all. This week, we’re talking to VPs of Engineering to see what matters the most to them.
What’s the difference between a CTO and a VP of Engineering?
The Vice President of Engineering is not the same job as a CTO. While opinions differ as to what each role entails (and the duties will sometimes handled by the same person depending on the company), the responsibilities generally lend themselves to two different roles. The CTO tends to work at a high-level and be more focused on communicating technical vision outside of the engineering teams, whereas the VP of Engineering — as the name implies — primarily tackles communication and coordination within engineering.
As Dave Shanley, former VP of Engineering and cofounder of Notion, puts it:
"Think of a VP of Engineering as a CTO, but dedicated to a product line in a much larger organization. You have the responsibility of delivering the product roadmap with less influence on what goes into that roadmap. You don’t spend your time coding. You’re actually trying to figure out the best way to tell your teams’ story and their success while everyone else thinks you should be delivering more."
You have the responsibility of delivering the product roadmap with less influence on what goes into that roadmap. You don’t spend your time coding.Dave Shanley, former VP of Engineering and Co-Founder of Notion
A VP of Engineering’s work often includes:
- Managing personnel: The position requires making sure the engineering organization is adequately staffed and that enough human resources are committed to important efforts. The VP of Engineering hires and manages everyone on the engineering team, holding 1:1 meetings, delegating tech leads, and codifying processes and workflows.
- Technical leadership: The VP of Engineering helps the CTO develop the technical strategy and define what is realistic for the product/technical roadmap. The VP is also responsible for working with the Product team to translate high-level brand and product vision into actionable scopes of work for the engineering team to implement.
- Strategy development and execution: It’s the VP of Engineering who will work with others in leadership to convey the state of technology in the organization. The VP of Engineering is the person to turn to for an internal understanding of current technical efforts, past technical challenges, and where the engineering team is headed next.
So now that we know what they do, what does your VP of Engineering want you to know?
VPs of Engineering have to make decisions fast.
When asked what he wishes other people understood about his job, Francisco Dias Lourenco (VP of Engineering at Nima), says, “We need to make decisions with imperfect or incomplete information, often with tough trade-offs — both technical and non-technical.”
Being put in a position to constantly make big decisions can be exhausting, and often, a team feels like the decision is made too fast, or should be deliberated on more before moving forward with a course of action.
Jonathon Storer, VP of Engineering at LegalShield, agrees:
"We’re always raising the bar high for our products to be responsive and rolling out new ones. For the engineering team, this means moving forward at the speed of light, with incredible agility. As the VP of engineering, I solve problems, find creative solutions to our needs and clear a path for my team to move forward."
As the VP of engineering, I solve problems, find creative solutions to our needs and clear a path for my team to move forward.Jonathon Storer, VP of Engineering at LegalShield
When Francisco has to remind his team why execution is important and why decisions need to be made now, Francisco remembers advice from a former mentor: “He compared making a decision to baseball players: ‘Don’t be afraid to make the wrong decision, even all-star players only hit .300.’ The only thing worse than a wrong decision is making no decision at all.”
They’re doing their best to clear your path.
Juan Pablo, VP of Engineering at Splice, knows how important it is for teams to be empowered and able to take action when they need to:
“From a product engineering standpoint, information is power. I want to make sure everyone has everything they need to do their job. We treat our employees like grownups — you should have the power to break things and make mistakes.”
This sounds like a bold approach, but they find that it works great for them: “The risk is outweighed by the benefits.”
Like most leaders and managers, your VP of Engineering wants you to ask questions, get the information you need (or just provide that information to you), and then go on to do your work, without them having to constantly check in with you.
They have to create and enforce focus
As Raffi Krikorian puts it, “Focus comes from the top.” Your VP of Engineering likely has a prioritized list of product goals and milestones, and it’s their job to make sure those goals and milestones are achieved. This means that they often wind up saying no as often as they say yes.
If doing too many things at once means splitting a team’s focus and hitting the previously set milestones at a slower rate, then it’s the VP of Engineering’s job to say “no” or “not right now” — no matter how cool the idea is. If they tell you that something has to wait, there’s usually a good reason for it.
If you’re a VP of Engineering, we’d love to hear more about what you want your team to know - let us know on Twitter!