We work with startups and early stage tech companies, helping them build the teams that will drive their business forward. Our clients often engage us to recruit the first person to own net new functions for their business — the first product manager, VP Sales, designer, CMO, etc. Our experience has shown us that one of the most difficult — and critical — hires for a growing organization is the VP of Engineering.
For a tech founder, the product is deeply personal. They’ve been responsible for everything — building a MVP, securing early sales and investment, positioning within the market — and as the company grows, they need to pass the baton to others who will own the various functions within the organization. We’ve found that this is especially difficult when it comes to the VP Engineering role, because that person becomes responsible for building the product itself — and without the product there’s nothing to sell or market, so the stakes are very high.
How will you know it’s time to hire a VP of Engineering for your growing company?
Your product is now a business, and your role has changed. You are no longer deep in the weeds on individual functions, and are now directing the company forward strategically.
Your investors are telling you that it’s time to bring in someone who has successfully scaled an engineering team.
You recognize the need to bring in someone with a more robust skill set than your own, and are ready to defer to their judgement.
You need someone who can lead and grow your team of engineers, make decisions about your tech stack, and own the responsibility of building your product.
While there are potentially many leaders in the Engineering function — from architects to CTOs — the Head or VP of Engineering is the executive that grows and manages the engineering team, is responsible for assessing the time it will take to deliver features or products, and delivering quality releases on that schedule.
Here are 4 things to consider before you hire a VP of Engineering:
Are you Really Ready for a VP of Engineering?
The number one requirement we hear from our clients is “we need someone who will be hands on.” What does that mean to you? Often, it means “we need someone who will write the code for the next three months, and then start growing the team.” Or, it’s startup code for “we need someone who wears many hats and takes on projects that have nothing to do with leading people or engineering.” If that’s what you need, then looking at candidates who have scaled and managed engineering teams of 50+ is not going to find you the right profile.
Another very common request we see from clients looking to hire their first VP of Engineering—they want to target candidates from Google, Amazon, or Facebook. It makes perfect sense—those are highly sought-after, experienced candidates. The problem is that they typically aren’t the best fit for a startup. Those large companies have processes in place, resources available, support, and budget. Whereas a startup needs to bring in someone who can build all of that from the ground up.
So, before you start looking at candidates, get very clear on the requirements for a role, and make sure that the title you have in mind lines up with those qualifications: don’t hire a VP if an Engineering Manager or Lead Developer is what you really need. And, when you’re sure that you need a VP level candidate, look for candidates who have a track-record of solving the kinds of problems your business is currently facing.
Understand the Role You’re Hiring For
So you’re definitely looking for a VP—you’ve got a growing team to manage, big visions for your product, and as Founder and/or CEO, it’s time to hand over the responsibility for building your product to an experienced professional.
One of the most common challenges we see with clients hiring their first VP of Engineering is that the CEO isn’t ready to hand things over. Engineering is one of the most critical functions at a tech company. Engineering is responsible for developing the core product at the heart of their business: what they’re selling, what people are using and buying. This makes it the hardest function for CEOs to let go of. The VP of Engineering will be responsible for the quality of the code, the methodology used for releasing product, and most importantly, for the tech stack used to build your products. You need to be able to trust the candidate you hire to make critical decisions — if you’re not ready to trust someone else with your product and the decisions required to drive it forward, you’re not ready to hire a VP.
To find the right candidate for the role, start by getting very clear on your requirements. What are the skills and experiences they need to have? Get clear on what is mandatory vs. nice to have. Experience with a comparable tech stack, successful experience building and leading a team, and impressive metrics around their impact on a product may all be mandatory, whereas deep subject matter expertise about your business vertical, a resume that includes tenure with a close competitor, or an advanced degree might land on the “nice to have” list. Think through the scope of the business problem the candidate will be solving, and screen candidates for the ability to get it done.
Get Ready to Attract — It’s a Candidate’s Market
Right now, tech is a candidate’s market. Great employees have options for where they go and what they do, and employers are competing for the best talent.
In our experience, VP Engineering candidates are motivated to move when they have the opportunity to take an idea and build a real product. These candidates are builders—they want to be a part of the next big thing. Can you cast a vision for the future of your business? What part will the hire play in that success?
Great VP Engineering candidates are generally industry agnostic — they typically are most interested in using cutting edge technology. They want to stay current with the latest tech stacks, and to use those tools to solve complex problems. They may also be motivated by opportunities to grow and lead a team.
When you meet with candidates, be ready to share the story of your company, your vision moving forward, and the role of the hire in accelerating that success. Make sure that you understand (before you start doing interviews) what your salary band is for the role, and where there is flexibility—equity may be very attractive for a candidate who is excited about building your product.
Lastly, we know from our conversations in the market that candidates want to have control over making decisions for the product and for building it—they don’t want to come in and do maintenance on someone else’s work. Remember that your best candidates are often builders by nature—so make sure that you’re highlighting those opportunities.
Be Ready to Execute Quickly and Efficiently
In a candidate’s market, and when hiring for such an instrumental role, you’ll want to use all of the tools and resources available to you. This is not a “post and pray” kind of role. It’s smart to partner with a niche recruitment firm that routinely executes these kinds of searches—your internal recruiters likely don’t have the technical expertise to seek out and qualify candidates for this type of role. And, while it’s always smart to reach out to your network at the beginning of any search, for a critical role like VP of Engineering, you’re going to want to cast a very large net.
Engaging a search firm that specializes is this type of role will help ensure that you see a pool of candidates that fit your requirements. They can also offer insights into the market, your compensation package and interview process, and the profile you’re looking for. For a growing startup, you may want to look at people who are excelling at the Director or Senior Manager level, and are ready to step up to the VP level.
Hiring a critical, net new position can be a challenging task for a growing tech company. Keep these 4 tips in mind as you start your search for a VP of Engineering to be sure that you’re attracting the talent that will truly drive your business forward.