Engineering teams are growing fast, and there seems to be an endless creation of new titles. But how do you know who holds the higher authority? Who should you go to for specific problems? And who will be managing your budget? We’ve put together the full details on everything about two important titles: the director of engineering and the vice president (VP) of engineering. Learn who makes each type of decision and whom to look to for long-term goal planning.
- What is the role of a director of engineering?
- What is the role of a VP of engineering?
- Differences between a director of engineering and a VP of engineering
What is the role of a director of engineering?
A director of engineering is responsible for all operational goals within the engineering department. This includes ensuring work is aligned with the company’s policies, seeing that projects are started and progressing on schedule, and measuring success of individual employees on the engineering team. Because of the operational focus of this role, it’s seen as slightly more tactical or “hands-on” than the VP role. For example, they would be responsible for scheduling team members on upcoming projects.
Some points from recent director of engineering job postings include:
- Coordinate across product and engineering teams to understand and widely socialize core service priorities across all of our products.
- Evolve our back-end tech stack using modern and internal supported options. S
- Maintain senior stakeholder relationships across the full core infrastructure offering with our cloud vendors to ensure our needs as a customer are surfaced and prioritized.
- Lead and mentor our team of mobile, web, back end, and data engineers; directly supervise our team leaders and develop a strong engineering culture.
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What is the role of a VP of engineering?
The VP of engineering is a bit more strategic in their pursuit. They are responsible for ensuring the overall success of the department through the productivity of various processes and for measuring the return on investment (ROI) of each new venture. Additionally, if there is a crisis or the team is struggling to meet goals, they are the go-to person for solving these problems.
According to Richard Wong, SVP of Engineering at Coursera, as a VP of engineering, you’re responsible for finding solutions to issues. As an example, that would not mean that you will rewrite the code every time there’s a bug, but it might mean that you’ll need to delegate the task of fixing the code to someone else and follow up to ensure that the issue was resolved appropriately.
Some points from recent VP of engineering job postings include:
- Provide backup and support to technical leads, stand in for them in their absence, and provide a sounding board for difficult questions or conflicts.
- Maintain and optimize operation and development budgets.
- Work directly with the chief technology officer (CTO) and chief executive officer (CEO) to understand the company’s direction, co-develop strategy, then execute on initiatives to increase velocity and improve engineering practices.
- Create a balance between immediate business needs and doing the right thing from a tech perspective to improve velocity over time.
Differences between a director of engineering and a VP of engineering
- Long-term vs. short-term goals
- Career path
- Education and experience
1Long-term vs. short-term goals
Directors and VPs have different takes on goals and how long to plan ahead on them. Directors of engineering have shorter-term goals, often focusing on how to make the next quarter better than the previous one. VPs are more likely to plan long-term—usually at least for the next year. This makes an impact on how objectives and key results (OKRs) are created and planned for. So while directors might have shorter-term goals on how many bugs are found in each sprint, the VP might have longer-term and higher-level strategic goals such as decreasing the amount of time between each sprint to get more code out the door more frequently.
On the day-to-day, directors and VPs have very different responsibilities. Generally, directors are more tactical and operational, so they focus on tasks like scheduling, providing technical assistance, and getting progress status reports from team leads. VPs, on the other hand, have a more strategic focus. So their daily responsibilities will include managing budgets, developing OKRs that align with the company’s goals, and making hiring decisions.
To get their roles done, VPs and directors of engineering attend and host different meetings. Directors spend more of their day in meetings with team leads and developers to address details and blockers in ongoing projects. Some meetings they may lead include project status meetings, backlog refinement meetings, and sprint retrospectives. A VP will attend budget approval meetings and give OKR progress updates during meetings with their manager (usually a C-level engineering executive).
On the ladder of seniority, VPs definitely rank above directors. If a final decision needs to be made, the power lies in the hands of the VP. As they manage areas like the budget and strategic direction of the team, it makes sense that the VP would make major decisions. However, this doesn’t mean the director has no say. Since the director of engineering spends a lot of their day overseeing developers’ day-to-day work, they hold a lot of insights on what works and doesn’t work in the software development process. So, their expertise should be considered when the VP is making decisions about operational processes.
At the end of each week, month, or quarter, every manager has metrics to report. This helps upper managers judge the value of investment and determine if the team has been successful or not. For the director of engineering, these measures of success can include the average number of bugs found in each release, the number of features released on schedule, or the time spent context switching. For the VP of engineering, they might be measured on reports on budget expenditures, the ROI of developer tooling, the amount of system downtime, or the productivity of the software development life cycle.
Both positions follow a similar route. To get there, you need a combination of technical and managerial experience. If an individual moves from a developer, to a technical lead, to an engineering manager, they can then find themselves as a director of engineering. From there, the next step in the engineering hierarchy is to move to the VP level. Following this, there are C-level executive positions such as a CTO or a chief information security officer (CISO). Depending on the size of the organization, there may be more specialized titles available for more technical roles. Generally, as you move up closer to the CEO, there are more strategic responsibilities and less tactical work.
7Education and experience
As both roles are similar, they have similar requirements for education. Engineering directors and VPs require at least a bachelor’s degree in computer science, engineering, or some other related discipline. Either a background in development or information systems can help with getting to the director level, especially if you have great people and communications skills. To get to the VP level, you’ll need a more strategic mindset, demonstrated project management experience, and a proven ability to manage people. VPs of engineering will become the face of the engineering organization, so great relationship-building skills and a high level of charisma become super important for this role and for networking with other executives and external stakeholders. Since VPs do some financial management as well, it also helps for them to have experience aligning spending to company goals.
Whether you’re in either role now or deciding between pursuing a director of engineering or a VP of engineering position, it’s helpful to know the difference between the two. Keep in mind that there can be some differentiation in the interpretation of the role depending on the size of the company. Smaller companies and startups will often hire engineering leaders who can take on a lot of strategic and tactical roles, but large enterprises will silo these functions for specialized individual roles. How many “hats” you want to wear in your day-to-day life and what kind of company you work for will directly affect what kind of work you can take on in your career. Either way, there’s something in the engineering career line for everyone—no matter how technical or managerial you want your role to be.