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Don't Hire a Head of Engineering without these 5 Traits

Hiring a Head of Engineering is often a very difficult hire for startups and technology companies alike. So much of the company’s success hinges on this hire’s ability to show up and deliver. And while there are the basics that all GOOD hires need to have (education, management experience and past experience) there are some traits outside of those that can help to determine if this candidate will be a GREAT hire.

Here are the top 5 traits to look for when seeking a GREAT vs GOOD Head of Engineering:

Comfortable with Fluidity

As everyone who has ever worked in a start-up or tech company knows, change happens at an expedited rate. There isn’t a lot of formal structure around processes and often the tech stack is in need of optimization. A GREAT Head of Engineering is someone who sees this as an opportunity as opposed to a negative situation that must be managed. Someone who can not only function within uncertainty but also help to add certainty through processes along the way.

This is often where hiring with a checklist gets thrown out the window. Instead of focusing on education, the programming languages they know, or the tech stack they’ve worked with, focus on the story. Where did this person work before? What was the progression of the organization? What was the evolution of the product? Etc. Focus on those candidates who can showcase that they’ve managed uncertainty and a fluid environment well.

Hands-on

Typically, people who spend a long time in leadership roles start focusing more on strategy, hiring, training, building teams and processes and less on time the hands-on work. If you’re a start-up setting up an engineering team from scratch, or in growth mode, a GREAT hire is someone who is willing to be hands-on with development, architecture, and/or coding at least in the early days, until a team has been hired.

Team Architect

As someone in charge of building out a team, a Head of Engineering needs to have the ability to identify what skillsets an organization needs when it comes to engineers, developers, solutions architects, etc.  Along with figuring out headcount needs, a GREAT hire is someone who has the interviewing skills to screen talent and find the best people in the market. Similar to the Head of Engineering, the first few hires for the engineering team will need to be people that can wear a few multiple hats while the larger team is fleshed out. A GREAT Head of Engineering will have an eye (and most likely a network) for talent.

Ownership 

This person may or may not be a C-level employee, but with everything you’re asking them to do, they need to be excited about product ownership (and feel like they have a seat at the table.) This role will determine how robust your product will be and how quickly it is able to scale. GREAT Heads of Engineering are those who are decisive, take pride and ownership in their work and assume ultimate responsibility for the team (both in good and not so good outcomes.) A large appeal to work at start-ups is the speed of execution and ownership an employee can have which is why it is essential for this hire to want to assume responsibility and feel empowered to do so. 

A Partner

One thing we've learned from the many years we've been recruiting product management leaders, is how very critical the relationship is between Product Management and the person who runs Engineering.

Every search we've ever done for a VP Product always involves meeting with the VP of Engineering (and visa versa) to ensure they will have a good working relationship and trend towards the common goal of building and releasing a successful product. The consequences can be detrimental when an engineering leader does not have a partnership approach, a point of view that is too narrow, or is so in love with the art of engineering to the determinant of the product roadmap so it is important to look for someone ready and willing to work as a team.

Looking to grow and scale your teams? Download our "Don't Hire Talent Without These Traits" ebook for more tips on how to spot GREAT talent in a sea of GOOD candidates.