The Art of Hiring Your First VP of Engineering

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Heather Broome is a Partner in the executive search firm, Code Search Partners, specializing in VP Engineering & CTO searches for high growth, venture-backed companies. She is also the Co-Founder of DivHERsity, a community focused on empowering women engineering leaders by facilitating access to mentors, CEOs, and investors for opportunities.

Heather shares her expertise partnering with early-stage companies to determine when in the growth process is right to hire a VP of Engineering, who that candidate should be, and how to find that fit. She’s partnered with founders and CTOs to complete dozens and dozens of these searches and shares some lessons below. 

The decision for startup founders to hire their first VP Engineering is one of the most critical decisions they will make in the evolution of their young company.

 

Not only can this key hire be a make or break move, but it’s also a hugely emotional decision for the founding CTO. After all, your engineers joined your company to work for YOU. How can you possibly trust another leader to care for your family as you have? 

Many clients I work with reach two key primary hurdles points when they decide to consider bringing a VP of Engineering on board:

(1) difficulty scaling the team and

(2) scalability, velocity and/or quality issues.

Often the founding CTO has built a team of 10-20 engineers and is now getting bogged down in management, which is not their passion nor their greatest asset to the company. Hiring engineers, whether in the Bay Area or remotely, requires an ENORMOUS amount of time, effort and money. Without the right leadership in place, you risk losing those coveted engineers… possibly to your competitors! 

A great VP of Engineering hire will thrive not only in building high performing engineering teams and mentoring engineers, s/he will also know just the right amount of structure and process to gradually implement to ensure that quality and velocity get supercharged. 

Focusing on what is best for your team and your customers can provide some clarity. Yes, hiring a new VP of Engineering can present some risk, the RIGHT hire will be an enormous asset and is essential to reaching your business goals. 

Three key criteria should take center stage here to determine the profile, and skills needed for the right candidate: scale, domain, culture fit.

 

Scale

Nearly every company I have worked with expects their team to eventually scale to 100 engineers or more and, therefore, believe they need someone who has led teams of this size. In reality, most VPs of Engineering that have led 100+ engineers are (1) less interested in scaling way down to 20 engineers again and (2) have become too far removed from the technology because they’re leading through at least two layers of management. I advise clients to focus on candidates who have a track record of scaling from 20 to 40+ and give them the opportunity to scale beyond. Not only will these candidates be closer to the technology, but they may also be more hands-on in scaling their teams and really have their thumb on the pulse of how to delicately implement the requisite structure and process at this stage of team and company growth. 

Domain

is a bit easier to get clarity on. Hiring a VP of Engineering is one of the toughest searches in the market so being crisp but flexible on domain experience is critical. There simply are not enough available great candidates so the more narrow your criteria, the fewer candidates that will qualify. Being somewhat flexible may allow you to find that gem you may not have considered. 

Culture fit

is THE reason VP Engineering placements succeed or fail with their new family. In short, the only way to ensure culture fit is to spend time with the candidate. 20+ hours with a finalist candidate may be a bit much but only 2 hours with the founding CEO/CTO is definitely too light to evaluate fit. There is a delicate balance to be struck here as hiring managers need to move so quickly or risk losing a great candidate but both sides need to spend enough time together to feel that the ‘fit’ is a match.

Nearly every client has noted the desire to hire a diverse engineering leader and I’ve had some great success in placing women in VP Engineering roles.

 

However, it’s important to note that less than 5% of startup VP Engineering leaders are women so it may not be realistic to attract a diverse candidate unless you strongly evaluate your qualification criteria to include a broader slate of candidates. I’ve also launched divHERsity with Nidhi Gupta, whom I placed at HIRED as SVPE Engineering. Our mission is to provide women engineering leaders with access to investors, opportunities, and mentors with the goal of increasing the number of women in the top engineering roles. 

I’m always happy to chat, brainstorm and share experiences so please reach out if I can help in any way. 

You can find Heather Broome on LinkedIn and learn more about Code Search Partners here.

 

Jeff Possiel

Jeff Possiel

Content Lead | Guild Talent

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