I was recently asked about my leadership style. This got me thinking about what leadership traits are exercised as a VP of Engineering. My leadership style is heavily influenced by my early experience as an officer in the U.S. Army. The military invests a lot of effort in the training of its young officers. This is because one’s first job as a second lieutenant in the Army is to lead a platoon of up to 50 soldiers. This requires you to develop and hone your leadership style very quickly. The leadership skills I learned in the Army carried forward to my professional career. I have since refined these and added some new ones over time.
As this blog is targeted at individuals in the VP of Engineering role, I thought it would be useful to share the leadership traits I have leveraged. This should hopefully provide guidance to other developing engineering leaders. Keep in mind that there are many approaches to leadership and no right answers. I offer this perspective to spark your thinking about what’s important for you.
Skills represent the primary practices you will focus on as a VP of Engineering. Executing these will occupy over 90% of your time. These practices should influence outcomes for your role over the long term.
- Project a vision. A clear vision will provide direction for every decision that your organization will make. It should align teams and reduce friction. To form your vision, contemplate how the organization can leverage technology to meet its business objectives. Are your product offerings taking full advantage of what is technically possible? Is there a better infrastructure architecture that allows your service to be built faster or delivered more reliably? Are your developers equipped with the optimal tools and frameworks to do their jobs? As you think through these questions, you should form a vision of the ideal state of your operation and what would be required to achieve it. Describe this to your team. Does it excite them? It should. Compare your vision to the current state. Form a plan to move towards the vision. Break it down into measurable steps. Consider the risks to your plan and mechanisms to mitigate them. Armed with your plan, communicate it to the team and drive towards the vision. Encourage team members as they execute. Advocate for them to ensure they are properly resourced and supported. Make adjustments to the plan as you move forward. The key to vision is that you identify improvements made possible by technology and lead your team towards them.
- Build teams. As a VP of Engineering, one of your main responsibilities is to build a highly productive team of motivated engineers who are able to deliver an industry-leading product. Building teams starts with selecting the right people. You should assess their individual strengths and align those with the right roles. You are also responsible for establishing the organization’s culture. I talked about how to build culture in a past blog post. Culture basically comes down to how you build success into your team. Employees want to be part of a winning team – your culture provides the practices and behaviors that allows them to win. Team building also involves structuring the engineering group into small, nimble teams that can operate autonomously. Identify young leaders and mentor them into team lead roles. Promote continuous improvement and introspection.
- Establish systems. As your teams grow, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain standards for how they perform work. This is where systems come into play. Systems represent the processes and practices your organization uses repetitively to design, schedule, implement and verify software development deliverables. Working with your peers in the product organization, you should establish the processes for this. You can borrow from agile methodologies. In establishing agile software development practices in past roles, I haven’t embraced a single method (scrum, xp, etc.) wholeheartedly, but rather borrowed the principals themselves and applied those to the unique characteristics of the organization. Examples of agile practices cover many areas – gathering requirements, planning work, scheduling tasks, tracking progress, providing updates, etc. Tactically, these can represent everything from daily stand-ups to retrospectives.
- Infuse accountability. While we all strive to build self-directed, independent teams, I think that individuals function best when lines of ownership and expectations are clear. In the Army, this is ingrained from the division level all the way down to the squad. Leadership identifies who is in charge of what and how success will be measured. This allows an organization of a million people to function cohesively. Even with all of this top down control, there is still plenty of room for individuals to take the initiative and be creative in the execution of their roles. The same approach can be applied to a software engineering organization. Define who is responsible for each function and how performance will be measured. Success should be cast in the form of expected outcomes, allowing individuals to determine for themselves how to achieve their goals. Additionally, as the leader of the team, you should provide the example for personal accountability. This means you take responsibility when the team falls short of objectives. After you demonstrate this approach to accountability, you will notice that your attitude will trickle down to the rest of your leadership roles. Accountability doesn’t just apply to negative outcomes. You should praise team members when they succeed, as well.
- Practice diplomacy: The skills presented to this point have been primarily focused on the engineering group’s internal operations. It is also important to build productive relationships outside of engineering with other executives. This allows engineering to contribute its part to achieve common company goals and initiatives. Most people define diplomacy as the behaviors two leaders exhibit during formal meetings. They think of social graces, like being polite. I think that diplomacy is deeper than this and is grounded in the research that occurs well before the interaction. This research involves a full understanding of the other leader’s organization and what they are trying to accomplish. Similarly, you should build a thorough understanding of how the engineering group fits into the overall company. What are the other departments, how do they function and what are their key objectives? What are the interaction points between engineering and other departments? In a technology company, peer departments are often product management, marketing, customer service and operations. Similar to the exercise you conducted internally for engineering, figure out the vision, structure, systems and accountability measures for these other departments. Then, strive to build relationships with the leaders of these teams. Know their challenges, hopes and dreams. This perspective will help you negotiate the inevitable disagreements that arise as your teams work together. This knowledge is the key to finding common ground and surfacing “win win” outcomes.
In addition to leadership skills, there are a set of behaviors that should guide you. These are less about achieving a particular long-term outcome, but rather influence your actions daily.
- Decisiveness. Make decisions quickly with the information available. As the VP of Engineering, you will be presented with many decisions. If you delay them all for more input, your team’s execution will slow down. You will never get all the information you want to make a 100% accurate decision. Have the confidence to evaluate options and make a call. Trust your gut. You can change your mind and alter direction, when new information presents itself.
- Integrity. Integrity goes far beyond just being honest. It means doing what you say you will. Provide an example for others to emulate. Lead by example. Given the high expectations you set for your organization, integrity requires that you exceed the same standard yourself. Don’t expect your team to do something you wouldn’t do yourself. If you ask them to work late to meet a deadline or address an outage, then you had better be there too.
- Composure. The VP of Engineering role can be very stressful. As the leader, how you act under stress trickles through the organization. Being the VP doesn’t give you the license to act differently. If you are calm and collected during difficult circumstances, then the rest of the organization will feel your confidence and act accordingly.
- Dedication. In a start-up, you are pushed to obtain exceptional results. You have to be willing to put in the time and effort necessary to achieve your goals. This can require you to get your hands dirty and do tasks sometimes outside of your scope. It can also require your attention when you least want to give it. Granted, we can all try to “work smarter”, but there will be situations where just grinding through a problem is required. Dedication provides the grit to get through these situations.
- Drive. In this context, drive represents a strong determination to continuously improve and raise the bar of performance. It’s about maintaining a “can do” attitude and projecting the energy that makes everyone strive to push themselves that much more.
- Curiosity. Have an insatiable appetite for learning. You always want to understand how solutions work and if there is a better way. You should be an active gatherer of information about your trade – regularly consume blogs, podcasts, books, tech talks, etc. I have found podcasts to be very helpful – you can listen to them at the gym or during your commute. As an example, I have been listening to Software Engineering Daily recently.
- Proactivity. Take the initiative to solve a problem, seize an opportunity or address an issue. As a member of your company’s executive team, you will rarely be told what to do. You have to fill in the blanks. This means understanding what the company wants to accomplish and taking the initiative to direct your team towards what is needed.
Hopefully, this article provided some insight into how to approach the VP of Engineering role. If you have other suggestions, please post them in the comments.