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shiaart
shiaart

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Engineering Leadership in Big Tech

In this article, we'll go through some of the common job titles used for senior management positions in tech companies. We created these to have transparent career paths, both for engineers already working at the company and for those applying for our open positions, so they can see how they can develop over time if they get the job.

We won't go into the role of CTO in this article because we think it's pretty well understood: You lead a department either by being promoted above the management level - sometimes over the course of an entire career - or by being the first senior engineer in a company. However, the levels in between are often a bit of a mystery, so we'll take some time to unravel them. This should give you a better idea of what to expect if you take this route, but also a better understanding of what people in your current company do in such positions.

The job titles in the executive ranks of most good technology companies are pretty standard. There are Engineering Managers, Directors of Engineering, VPs of Engineering and finally CTO. However, what the role actually entails depends on the size of the company. For example, a Director of Engineering in a medium sized company may have a few small teams reporting to him, but in the largest companies (e.g. FAANG) the same job title may mean managing a department of 250 people. So if you move to a very large company, you may have to accept a "downgrade" in job title even though the role you take on is bigger.

In this article, we'll look at each job title and what it might mean in a start-up or smaller company, and then compare it to the equivalent position in some of the largest companies in our industry. This way you'll not only get an idea of what the job entails, but also where you should best start thinking about your next move. For example, would you rather take on a bigger role with more autonomy in a smaller company, or do you want to establish yourself in larger tech companies first by taking a sideways step and then working your way up? Different people have different motivations.

The Three Levels

To better classify the following job titles, there's a nice, if scary-sounding, stage definition from the military: the three stages of war. I'm by no means a military person, but they've certainly thought a lot about leadership issues over the years.

These three levels are:

  • Tactical: leading others to win individual battles and engagements.
  • Operational: planning, executing, sustaining and adapting campaigns to achieve strategic objectives.
  • Strategic: defining outcomes that form strategic goals: why and with what we want to achieve something.

Using these criteria, we can better understand what it means to move up the leadership ladder.

Engineering Manager

An engineering manager (EM) usually leads a team of about 5-7 people. If you contribute as an individual, it is sometimes difficult to get the first job EM, as companies sometimes prefer candidates who have already managed staff.

By our definition, EMs are tactical. They lead a team to deliver its part of the whole. What that part of the whole is has usually already been defined for them.

One strategy for getting your first EM role is to join a fast-growing company as a IC with the aim of developing yourself and ensuring that you practise and demonstrate skills that show you are suited to a leadership position. This may include putting yourself forward to lead projects, mentoring others, influencing decisions and continually building a track record for delivering high quality software. If you are not already working in a company that regularly has EM vacancies, it is much harder to progress as you will need to apply elsewhere.

It's worth noting that you may also see the job title Senior Engineering Manager. This usually means someone who manages a team but has much more seniority and experience than a EM without the prefix senior. Larger companies offer this level of advancement to ensure that EMs have more opportunities for career development without jumping straight to Director, as this requires more movement on the organisational chart. In addition, for EMs who enjoy technical contribution and management roles, the career path from EM to Senior EM can be very rewarding and long-lasting. They can gain influence, seniority and impact and still contribute code.

Director of Engineering

The role of Director of Engineering is usually the first one where you start managing managers. I mentioned at the beginning of this article that I would explore what the role means in start-ups and in larger companies, but it is rare to see the Director of Engineering in start-ups as it is more of an artefact of middle management in medium and large companies.

By our definition, directors are operational. They coordinate and execute multiple actions as part of a larger strategic goal. They usually have more control over the how, but the why has already been decided for them.

The role itself varies from company to company. However, there are often some commonalities in the definition as the next major development step from EM:

1) You begin to lead other managers. This means that you can grow to a reasonable size in the organisation. If you assume that a EM has about 7 direct subordinates who are ICs, then the largest team that a EM could manage is the same number. However, as a director manages managers, he could have 7 or more managers reporting to him, each with their own team. That's a lot more people to consider, manage and promote.

2) Usually you are responsible for an operational area. This means you might have a comma after your job title, followed by a few words describing the area you are responsible for. For example, a Director of Engineering, Data Infrastructure might lead several teams that build and maintain the application's core storage infrastructure. A Director of Engineering, ABC might lead an organisation made up of all the engineering teams that develop new features for the ABC application, one of many applications across the Foobar application suite.

3) You step away from driving the vehicle. While EMs typically continue to write code for their team - albeit usually less on the critical path - Directors of Engineering will typically be much less involved, if at all, in handing over code. Instead, they focus on keeping their teams productive, coaching their managers, working on the combined technical roadmap for their area, and maximising efficiency and collaboration. If we apply Andy Grove's management equation, where a manager's output is equal to the output of their team + the output of those they influence, it becomes clear that there are activities with greater leverage than going into the shallows of a IDE and transferring code. Instead, deciding what to do and what not to do, connecting and sharing information with colleagues, and effectively delegating tasks through the team will always lead to higher 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 level VP. Usually managers manage managers of managers. How meta! The size of the organisation a VP is responsible for depends very much on the company they work for. Below we look at two ways in which the role of a VP engineering manifests itself.

In our level definition, VPs are strategic. They help define why and with what we want to achieve something.

Looking at VP Engineering as an evolution of Director, there are some common themes:

  • Accountability for a specific part of the strategy. Perhaps the VP Engineering leads the platform department, which includes everything from data ingestion to classification, storage and APIs. Uptime, easy access and fast throughput are critical and are managed by dozens of teams. They may also be responsible for the organisation producing a product or set of products that make up a large part of the entire company's revenue. In any case, it involves a high level of responsibility and a strategy that's closely linked to the direction of the company.
  • They spend time thinking about the what and why rather than the how. Our Technical Directors may spend their time on how to create and maintain an important part of the application real estate, but Vice Presidents typically spend more time on what those parts should be in the first place and how they impact the company's bottom line. They're often involved in discussing corporate and departmental strategy as it affects the direction of their organisation. It's an upper management role where VPs draw on their technical knowledge to contribute to the discussion.
  • They coach and steer many people towards the future. What should the department be working on in 3, 6, 9, 12 months? What about the possible development in the next three years? What would that look like in terms of resources and technology? How can they communicate this vision and coach their staff to take their own teams on this journey?
  • Reporting to CTO is worth a separate point because it can be either brilliant or frustrating. In smaller companies, it can happen that an VP engineer is the process owner, while the hacker-in-chief is CTO subordinate. This leads to tensions. In larger companies, they may be geographically distant from their supervisor and have many competing priorities in their schedules. This makes it difficult to spend time together. The same strategy applies: you've to be independent, be able to make important decisions with minimal support, and know how to fill in the gaps where the supervisor cannot or won't spend their time.

How to become a VP Engineering?

One way is to become the first engineering leader in a start-up company. The VP engineering is the counterbalance and complement to the CTO in the early stages. He/she will be responsible for the delivery process, performance of engineers, resources and prioritisation of projects, hiring of staff, etc. The CTO will lead the development of the product. If the start-up is successful, it is a great way to accelerate one's career, but the experience can definitely be a trial by fire. Start-ups are not easy.

The other path is to establish yourself as Director of Engineering and have a proven track record of operational excellence (i.e. making the trains run on time comes naturally to you), while demonstrating your ability to develop and implement strategic direction in collaboration with your VP and colleagues. Think of cross-departmental initiatives, efficiencies through building systems for reuse, and a sense of how best to invest time, money and people to achieve results that benefit both engineering (e.g. interesting, innovative, challenging work) and the wider business (e.g. improving speed, reducing costs or opening up new products). Think again of Andy Grove's equation: ever more powerful teams, ever more powerful impact on others.

If you want to work for one of the biggest technology companies in the world as VP engineering, you should know that these positions are rarely filled externally. Because of the expertise, experience and confidence required for this position at FAANG (or similar companies), you will need to start at the lower management level and then work your way up from there. I have spoken to FAANG recruiters who say that VP engineers only ever join externally by taking on the 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's about length of service, experience and remit, and sometimes whether they are part of the company's leadership team.

Summary

I hope that this article has helped to demystify what's expected in the various management-level roles that sit between an individual employee and the website CTO. I'm aware that these roles can still seem very nebulous after reading it, especially if you aren't used to thinking about fairly abstract concepts like corporate or departmental strategy. And believe me, sometimes you'll wish you didn't have to!

Check out career paths on progression.fyi for more detailed descriptions of what each level means at Brandwatch, and be sure to compare them to those published for other companies - it's not the same everywhere. You can also check out levels.fyi to see what these levels are called at much larger companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook.

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.

Top comments (5)

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patgr profile image
Partick Gr.

Thank you for this insight, could you please post more about transition from Engineer to a manager in tech?

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shiaart profile image
shiaart Author

Thanks for your comment, stay tuned

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kungfukitty profile image
Kayla Anderson

As someone who works for a small company in the operations department, I truly never got the breakdown of the entire company and what everyone does. This article definitely gave me a better understanding of everyone’s role including my own.

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kungfukitty profile image
Kayla Anderson

Engineering has always been interesting to be id love to know the different avenues you could take to get into the field!

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kungfukitty profile image
Kayla Anderson

It would be interesting to see the expected salary for roles like these for people who are interested in taking a new career path

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