When to a Hire a VP of Engineering

In my previous post, I discussed the challenges of growing the engineering team and defining the roles of a CTO vs VP of engineering. A common question that came up is: when is a good time to start looking for a VP of engineering. I am afraid that there isn’t a simple answer but more a mix of a few things:

  • Personality & skills of the engineering lead
  • Business needs
  • Team size
  • Company finances

Should you do the job or hire someone?

Assuming you are currently the tech lead at your company (tech founder / CTO / lead engineer), you first need to take a honest look at what you are good at and what you want to do. Many founders aren’t best suited to be CTOs, they often are less driven by engineering design, architecture and long term business strategies but are more inclined to find “smart hacks” to get quick returns on small investments. This is a very useful skill when you start and aren’t quite sure where the company is heading. But this skill might not help you be the best CTO. Some other founders or early developers are amazing at selling their vision and getting people to join their cause. They convince very talented people to quit their cushy jobs to take a risk with them and they make sure everyone is both happy and produces amazing results. They create amazing teams and great cultures, great signs of potentially brilliant VP of engineers.

I was recently chatting with someone and was asking how they see the difference between a VP of eng. and a CTO and they were telling me that they currently lack experience so they should first be a VP and will then want to “climb up the career ladder” to become a CTO. That didn’t quite sound right to me, it would be like if someone would tell me they first needed to be a mobile software engineer before becoming a backend engineer. VPs and a CTOs are almost 2 separate tracks that require different skills. That’s why I think it’s very important to realize that it’s totally OK for founders or early engineers to hire CTOs (or CEOs for that matter) and take a VP of eng or tech lead role. But probably more importantly, it’s critical to know when you need help! Startups are intense and early employees and founders take on a lot of roles and while nobody likes to complain, saying you need help is not a sign of weakness, it shows strength and humbleness. If you know you need help, now is the time to hire! (or to reduce the team size)

Understand your business needs and capacity

The second important point is to understand the business needs. In startup land, you are often pushed to hire as many engineers as possible, as fast as possible. You look more credible when you say you have a team of 30 than when you say you have a team of 5 engineers. Founders (and VCs) want to prove they can hire and if they were to be acquired, they know that the team size factors in their company valuation. I personally find these arguments very silly, but I that’s unfortunately how many people think. Unless you are aiming for a acqui-hiring exit, I’d suggest to try to avoid falling in this trap. During the early phases of a startup, it’s the role of a CTO to define the real engineering needs and discuss with the other execs what kind of budget can be allocated to wages. We know that there will be some churn and therefore waste. If you can keep the overhead, low, you can run leaner and extend the runway. Furthermore, by having a lower head count, you can afford to pay your awesome engineers better (and recruit more experienced devs). I personally believe in running smaller team until you find the inflection point. For most startups, throwing more developers won’t make a huge difference since they first need to figure out their market fit. Focus on hitting those milestones and when you know that have to scale the team soon: then you will know it’s time to hire a VP of engineering. Don’t wait too long otherwise you are going to set your future VP for failure.

The company size is an interesting measure, as mentioned earlier, it’s often believed that the more the better. It gives you legitimacy. When you are well organized, have clear business goals, objectives and a clean code base, that’s usually true. But it also comes with a huge overhead. I approximate this overhead to represent around 10–15% of manager time per direct report. When you reach 6–10 engineers, it becomes a full time job (if you want to do it decently well). Certainly some teams can operate manager-free for longer than others but it comes at a different cost. My recommendation if you start seeing your team grow fast is to do one of the following:

  • keep the engineering team small until you can hire a VP of engineering and properly scale the team
  • act as a vp of engineering and let someone else be the lead engineer/CTO

Once you start seeing great traction and revenue, which can be via direct revenue or investment, that’s when you should start actively looking for the person that will be your team’s quarterback. Note that the time to get to that point might vary greatly from company to company and that’s totally normal. The hard part is what makes startups hard: timing. You don’t want to hire a VP too early, but you also don’t want to wait too long and bringing someone to “save” a team that’s falling apart.

So to summarize, you need to define how you will fit in the picture, pick the right team size once you reach the critical inflection point take the time you need to find the right person to help improve your process while scaling the team and keeping everyone happy and productive.

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