Transitioning from a Director to the VP of Engineering? - Three great takeaways to help you progress

Insights from the Sr. VP of Engineering at Coursera - Richard Wong

Good vs great engineering leaders

As Directors or VPs of an organization, Leaders want to have an impact and everyone has a different understanding of what differentiates a good from a great leader. Being good or great is not a binary thing, it is a spectrum. When leaders work to become better, they become great over time.

Few questions that great leaders ask themselves regularly:

  • Do I bring more impact to the organization?
  • Do I believe that my team is more efficient than ever?
  • Am I solving problems not just for myself but also for the bigger ecosystem?
  • Is my team doing the same things as I to achieve growth and success?

If you can confidently say yes to all these questions, you are definitely on the right track to become a great engineering leader. If you are not sure about some of these questions, then there are some areas that you need to work on your path to become an impactful leader.

Preparing yourself for the VP role

Once on the job, you will realize what’s working and what’s not, and even though it can be hard to prepare for all challenges of the role, you can still prepare for some of them.

  • Think about the impact: The efficiency for your team, and what is bothering them. Once you collectively start trying to solve the problems for your direct reports (the directors of engineering), you are essentially solving the problems for the whole engineering organization, and that’s a great way to start preparing yourself i.e., think bigger than what only your team is doing.

  • Deal with the elephants in the room: Those dysfunctional things that everyone knows but nobody wants to talk about. Have that bravery and vulnerability to engage with and surface those topics. Stepping out of your comfort zone may become a big part of your job as a VP, so engaging with such challenges and hopefully solving some of them can be one of the best preparations.

Understanding the role and responsibilities

The responsibilities don’t always see a step function change but a change in the composition of time. As a VP, the way you care about deliverables is different. You need to solve problems by setting up a culture, a sustainable system, and a vision.

These three transitions will help you project your vision to your teams.

  1. From building deliverables to building a culture
  2. From designing a product roadmap to a vision
  3. From thinking about the team or engineering to the company

The amount of trust held by the executive team and senior leadership can help ascertain the effectiveness of VPs. If there is trust, there will be freedom, space, and resources for accomplishing success and good work. Essentially, VPs are the face of and represent the engineering organization.

Dealing with challenges-

Changing the mindset and defining the organizational problems can be a challenge in this role. Have a rational understanding of the problems and talk to people in your organization. If you consult the right people, you will get perspective. This will also help boost your confidence if their suggestion is similar to your own solution. You need to understand that solutions may take quarters to years to show the final outcome. Do not feel frustrated thinking that there is no progress day-by-day.

Defining metrics and measuring performances

  1. Three-year vision - Set achievable goals and think about how will the organization look like in three years. Is there an expansion plan? Where will your people be located? Observing the talent gaps (if any), skills or senioritis missing from the team. Commit to bridging these gaps by hiring, training and promoting more people.
  2. Quality of work - As a business, you must not go wrong while building trust among your customers for your product. If your system is down all the time or always has errors or glitches, your customer won’t trust you a lot. Engineering has the best control on producing a robust system. You need to measure and show that your engineering system is reliable, and you can do this by measuring your uptime, number of critical bugs happening, and availability of your APIs.
  3. Productivity of team - As productivity is hard to measure for engineering and should not be measured by the number of lines of code, you can look at metrics such as “how much are your engineers waiting?” This could be waiting for the bills, waiting to deploy, and inducing a tool to troubleshoot sites, etc. Using proxy metrics, if not realistic ones, will help identify those extremely inefficient things that people are wasting time on.

Preparing yourself for the VP role and showcasing your capabilities is an ongoing process. Conversations about your career aspirations, big problems in the organization, best ways to solve those problems should happen at a regular cadence with your managers. Learning, making progress, and providing evidence for the same will help you move closer to your aspirations as the VP of Engineering.

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