What the VP of Engineering does

Though I worked with great VPs of Engineering at Vontu and Symantec, I had little idea of what they actually did every day. I'd read Mark Suster's classic post on the subject. Everyone should read it. But I didn't understand what kept the VP of Engineering up at night.

When I became the VP of Engineering myself, I realized that I am measured in three ways:

  • Is the team delivering value?
  • Is the team lowering risk?
  • Does the team attract and develop talent?

To answer those questions, I find myself obsessing about 4 things:

  1. Developing the team.
  2. Creating alignment.
  3. Ensuring fast, reliable execution.
  4. Advocating for organizational scalability.

1. Developing the team

When I worked at Vontu, our CEO Joseph Ansanelli repeated a "wildly important goal" at every quarterly business review: hire and engage a great team. His post on the subject is worth a read.

Developing the team is the VP of Engineering's most important goal. If this part of the job is done right, nearly everything else gets easier. The right people will identify and solve the most important problems.

There's no science to developing a team. It's pure alchemy. It requires inspiring the team with a shared identity and vision of success. It also requires learning how to engage each member of the team. It's critical to recruit great people who make the team better. And it's sometimes important to ensure that some people leave the team.

2. Creating alignment

Everyone on the team needs to know why what they are doing is important for the business. If this were only a matter of communicating business objectives clearly, it wouldn't be that hard.

In reality, though, creating alignment involves a bunch of sausage making because there are a ton of constraints to navigate. e.g.,

  • Short-term and long-term needs are often at odds.
  • Individual needs sometimes conflict with team needs.
  • The engineering organization may have important goals that compete for staffing with the needs of other organizations.
  • Teams within the engineering team may have conflicting goals.

Achieving alignment requires managing both up and down. It takes a blend of skills: articulating a clear purpose, advocating for the team's needs, educating stakeholders on constraints, listening carefully to their perspectives, shaping strategy, and communicating business priorities. It's important to help non-technical executives reason about product development capacity so that they respect the team's priorities and understand the tradeoffs that need to be made.

3. Ensuring fast, reliable execution

Suster describes process as a key part of the job. Process is important, but it is also a means to an end. Processes exist to help the team execute quickly and reliably. Knowing when to add process, when to remove it, and when to leave things alone is a subtly hard part of the job.

4. Advocating for organizational scalability

As VP of Engineering, I'm often the guy in the room who's fighting for the organization's scalability — that is, the ability to maintain the team's performance as its demands increase. That means that I sometimes am the unpopular guy who argues that the benefits of a particular new toolset don't outweigh the operational and training burdens it imposes.

My four obsessions are in order because each one enables the next. A great team will define a better strategy. Clarity on goals focuses the team on problems that matter and away from problems that don't. Great execution puts the organization and the business in a position to scale. And a scalable organization makes it more likely that key employees will remain happy and engaged.