VP, Director, what?

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Managing managers

This post is part of a series of articles on managing managers.

Before we dive further into techniques and tools for budding managers of managers, it’s worth spending some time to get to know what sort of progression may lie ahead on the management track once you begin to go beyond managing just one team.

In this article we’ll step through some of the common job titles that are used for higher level management track positions in technology companies, with reference to the career tracks that we created at Brandwatch. We created these so that we had transparent career progression paths both for engineers already working at the company, but also for those that were applying for our vacancies so they could see how they could grow with time if they got the job.

We’ll not go into the CTO role in this article because we believe it’s fairly well understood: you run a department, either by being promoted up through the management track – sometimes over the course of a whole career – or by being the founding lead engineer at a company. However, the levels in between are often a bit of a mystery, so we’ll spend some time untangling them. It should give you a better idea of what may lie ahead for you if you choose this path, but also better understand what people at your current company are doing in those kinds of roles.

The job titles on the management track of most good technology companies are fairly standardized. You have Engineering Managers, Directors of Engineering, VPs of Engineering and then the CTO. However, what the role actually entails is a function of the size of the company. For example, a Director of Engineering at a medium sized company may have a few small teams reporting to them, but in the biggest companies (e.g. FAANG), that same job title may entail running a division of 250 people. As such, when switching to very large companies, one may have to take what looks like a job title “demotion”, even though the role that they are doing is larger.

As such, in this article we’ll look at each of the job titles and see what it might mean at a start-up or smaller company, then compare that to the equivalent position at some of the largest companies in our industry. This should give you an idea of not only what the role entails, but where you might best begin to think about your next step. Would you, for example, prefer to take on a larger role with more autonomy at a smaller company, or do you want to begin to establish yourself in larger technology companies by making the sideways step first then working your way up? Different folks have different motivations.

The Three Levels of War

In order to better frame the job titles below, there’s a neat, albeit scary-sounding level definition from the military: the three levels of war. I’m not a military person by any means, but they’ve certainly thought quite hard about leadership topics over the years.

These three levels are:

  • Tactical: guiding others to win individual battles and engagements.
  • Operational: planning, conducting, sustaining and adapting campaigns to accomplish strategic goals.
  • Strategic: defining outcomes that form strategic goals: why and with what we will achieve.

We can use these to better frame what it means to move up the management track.

Engineering Manager

An Engineering Manager (EM) will typically manage one team, of usually around 5-7 people. If you are an individual contributor, it is sometimes tricky to get that first EM role, since companies will sometimes favour hiring candidates who have managed people before. 

In our level definition, EMs are tactical. They guide one team to ship their part of the whole. What that part of the whole is will have typically been defined for them.

One strategy for getting your first EM role is to join a fast growing company as an IC with a view to converting, ensuring that you practice and demonstrate skills that show you have suitability for leadership. This may involve nominating yourself to lead projects, mentoring others, influencing decisions and continually building a track record for shipping good quality software. If you’re not already working for a company where EM roles become available regularly, then it’s much harder to progress as you’ll have to apply elsewhere.

This website goes into the EM role in detail (see the Management 101 and Levelling up sections), and I’ve even written a book about it! So I won’t go into it further here. However, what’s important to know is that it’s that crucial first rung on the management ladder where you can begin to gain the experience that you need to consider moving upwards towards managing managers. Everyone’s gotta cut their teeth somewhere.

It’s worth mentioning that you may also see the Senior Engineering Manager job title. Typically this means that somebody is managing one team, but has much more tenure and experience than an EM without the Senior prefix. Larger companies may offer that progression step as a way of ensuring that EMs have more opportunities for career growth that don’t immediately involve taking the plunge into Director, since that requires more org chart movement. Additionally, for EMs that enjoy being able to mix technical contribution and management, the EM to Senior EM career arc can be long-lasting and highly rewarding. They can grow in influence, seniority and impact and still contribute code. 

Director of Engineering

The Director of Engineering role is typically where you first begin to manage managers. I mentioned at the beginning of this article that I would explore what the role means at start-ups and at larger companies, however it’s rare to see Director of Engineering at start-ups, since it’s very much an artifact of middle management at medium to large companies. 

In our level definition, Directors are operational. They coordinate and execute multiple efforts within a larger strategic goal. Typically they have more control over the how, but the why has already been decided for them.

The role itself varies across companies. However, there are often some common threads in how it is defined as the next major progression step from EM:

  • You begin to manage other managers. This means you can progress towards a reasonably sized org. Assuming that an EM may have 7 or so direct reports that are ICs, the largest team that an EM could therefore manage is that same number. However, given that a Director manages managers, they could have 7 or so managers reporting to them, each with their own team. That’s a lot more people to consider, steer and grow.
  • You typically are accountable for an operational area. What this means is that you may find yourself with a comma after your job title, followed by some words that describe the area that you own. For example, a Director of Engineering, Data Infrastructure could run multiple teams that build and maintain the core storage infrastructure of the application. A Director of Engineering, Fizzbuzz could run an org consisting of all the engineering teams producing new features in the Fizzbuzz application, one of many applications in the whole Foobar application suite.
  • You step away from driving the vehicle. Whilst EMs usually continue to write code for their team – although typically less on the critical path – Directors of Engineering will usually involve themselves much less, if at all, in committing code. Instead, their focus will be ensuring their teams are productive, coaching their managers, working on the combined engineering roadmap for their area, and maximizing efficiency and collaboration. If we use Andy Grove’s management equation of the output of a manager = the output of their team + the output of those they influence, it becomes clear that there are higher leverage activities than being in the weeds of an IDE and committing code. Instead, deciding what to do and what not to do, connecting and sharing information with peers and delegating effectively through their teams will always result in more output.

So how does this role come about? I’ve often seen it happen in two ways.

The first is that it occurs naturally through growth. As a department hires more people, EMs begin to acquire more direct reports that they can effectively manage. Teams get too big. Thus teams split, and the need for the org chart to maintain a logical grouping creates gaps for people to begin managing managers. 

Although this presents a great opportunity, it’s important not to make yourself redundant if you happen to be the person getting promoted into the Director role. For example, if you end up splitting an overly large team in two, promote an EM to run one of them and report to you first whilst you run the other one. This way you can gradually ease away from driving the vehicle, which gives you a longer period of time in your comfort zone of running one team whilst delegating another to a new manager who will need ramping up.

The second way is that Director of Engineering roles at the biggest technology companies are an entry point for experienced external managers of managers to begin to establish themselves in bigger companies. For example, someone who has experience of being a Director (but often above) at a medium-sized company may get recruited externally in order to begin to scale a new initiative, or to provide stable engineering management for an acquired team that the larger company wants to retain and grow. 

It’s not uncommon to see CTOs who have run departments of around 100 join big technology companies to run a smaller team with a plan to grow rapidly. From what I have learned talking to contacts, Directors of Engineering at FAANG companies can run orgs in the hundreds of people, whereas VPs have thousands reporting up into them.

All of this sounds very exciting and important, but the step upwards to Director of Engineering is where an EM must firmly commit to management and coaching being their primary, and often only, output. Trying to hang on to technical contributions causes conflicts of interest across their teams and is, most often, inefficient as per Andy Grove’s equation. However, the good news is that excellent managers of managers are rare. If you are motivated to do it and successful at it, you are extremely hirable, and you can also make a real difference in the working day of a substantial amount of people.

Typically a Director of Engineering will report to the VP Engineering, or perhaps a Senior Director of Engineering. The Senior prefix works in the same way as it does for EM. It signposts tenure and experience.

VP Engineering

Ah, the VP level. Usually managing managers of managers. How meta! The size of the organization that a VP looks after very much depends upon the company that they work for. We’ll look at two ways that a VP Engineering role manifests below.

In our level definition, VPs are strategic. They help define the why and with what we will achieve.

Thinking of the VP Engineering as a progression from Director, there are some common themes:

  • Accountability for a particular part of strategy. Perhaps the VP Engineering is running the Platform division, which spans everything from data ingest, classification, storage and APIs. Uptime, ease of access and speed of throughput are key, as tackled by tens of teams. Perhaps they are accountable for the organization that builds a product or suite of products that turn over large portions of the entire company’s revenue. Either way, we’re talking about significant accountability and strategy that links closely to the company’s direction.
  • Spending time thinking about what and why, rather than how. Our Directors of Engineering may be spending their time operationally on how to build and maintain a significant piece of application real estate, but VPs typically spend more time on what those pieces should be in the first place, and how they affect the company’s bottom line. They are often part of the discussion around company and department strategy since it affects the direction of their organization. It’s a senior management job where VPs lean on their technical knowledge to contribute to the conversation.
  • Coaching and steering many people towards the future. What should the division be working on in 3, 6, 9, 12 months? What about potential trajectories for the next three years? What would that look like in terms of resourcing and technology? How can they communicate that vision and coach their staff to bring their own teams along on the journey?
  • Reporting to the CTO. This is worth a whole bullet point because it can either be brilliant or frustrating. At smaller companies a VP Engineering may be the process person when compared to the hacker-in-chief CTO. This causes tension. At larger companies they may find themselves geographically distant to their manager and with many competing priorities for each of their calendars. This makes it hard to get quality time together. The same strategy applies: the need to be self-starting, to be able to make key decisions with minimal support, and to know how to fill the gaps that their manager either can’t or won’t want to focus their time on.

So how do you become a VP Engineering?

One way of doing it is by being the first engineering manager at a start-up. The VP Engineering is the counterbalance and compliment to the CTO during the early stages. They’ll be the ones owning the delivery process, the performance of engineers, resourcing and prioritization of projects, hiring, and so on. The CTO will be leading the build of the product. If the start-up is successful, it’s a great way to accelerate one’s career growth, but the experience can certainly be a trial by fire. Start-ups are not easy.

The other way is by building tenure as a Director of Engineering and creating a provable track record of operational excellence (i.e. making the trains run on time is natural to you) whilst showing aptitude for creating and implementing strategic direction, in partnership with your VP and your peers. Think cross-department initiatives, efficiencies through building systems for reuse, and being in tune with how best to invest time, money and people and get outcomes that benefit both Engineering (e.g. interesting, innovative, challenging work) and the whole business (e.g. improving speed, reducing cost, or unlocking new products). Think of the Andy Grove equation again: increasingly impactful teams, increasingly impactful influence on others.

If you have aspirations of being a VP Engineering at some of the largest technology companies in the world, then it’s worth mentioning that they rarely hire these roles externally. Due to the domain knowledge, experience and trust required to do the role at FAANG (or equivalent) companies, you’re going to have to join lower down the management track and then work your way up from there. I’ve spoken to FAANG recruiters who say that VP Engineers only ever join externally by doing that same role at other FAANG companies.

Like the EM and Director roles before, you can have a VP with the Senior prefix (SVP). You may even see Executive VP (EVP). Again, it signifies tenure, experience and remit, and sometimes whether they are part of the company’s leadership team.

In summary

Hopefully this article has been useful in demystifying what is expected in the different roles on the management track that sit between an individual contributor and the CTO. I appreciate that after reading this they may still seem equally nebulous, especially if you’re not used to having to think about fairly abstract concepts such as company or department strategy. And believe me, sometimes you’ll wish you didn’t have to!

Do check out our career tracks over on progression.fyi to get more in-depth descriptions about what each of these levels mean at Brandwatch, and be sure to compare them with those that are published for other companies – it’s not the same everywhere. You can also dig around what these levels are called at much larger companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook by checking out levels.fyi

The journey from EM to Director to VP takes you along a path from tactical to operational to strategic. It’s not for everyone. Beyond EM you typically have to make the conscious choice to put down your IDE and spend more time on coaching, people, resourcing and, dare I say it, competing priorities and politics within an organization. But it’s not all bad. It can be incredibly rewarding seeing teams, divisions and whole departments succeed.

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