If you’re considering a career as a VP of engineering, here’s everything you need to know about the role.
The vice president (VP) of engineering sits close to the top of the pyramid of software engineering job roles. It is often the second most senior role in the software engineering function and will typically report directly to the chief technology officer (CTO).
Here we outline the role and responsibilities of a VP of engineering, what you can expect to earn in the role and, hopefully, how to reach the position yourself.
VP of engineering job description
A VP of engineering typically oversees the managers of managers in an engineering department.
They’re responsible for building, growing, and driving teams of engineering directors, engineering managers, and developers to build quality software and deliver on strategic goals. They play an important role in shaping the company’s technical strategy along with the CTO, and setting and executing upon a roadmap for how to get there.
VP of engineering responsibilities
The exact responsibilities of a VP of engineering will depend on the size, state, and culture of the organization, but a typical to-do list includes the following:
- Work with product, design, business, sales, and marketing teams to bring products to market. This involves a lot of explaining and advocating for the work of engineering teams. When done well, cross-functional teams will be working well together and engineering will have an equal voice in the business.
- Deliver on the engineering strategy set by the CTO. In startups and smaller organizations, VPs of engineering may also be responsible for creating the strategy. The key sign of success here is that teams are meeting their strategic goals.
- Manage direct reports. This includes running 1:1s, recruiting new hires, identifying skills gaps, and providing growth opportunities for engineering managers. Successful VPs will see employees progressing by developing new skills or achieving promotions, as well as maintaining high staff retention rates.
- Report to the CTO, the board, and other stakeholders on the state of the engineering organization, sharing successes, and identifying areas that need support, ideally backed up by meaningful metrics.
- Manage the engineering organization’s cash flow and oversee important buying and spending decisions around key tools and technologies. The goal is to keep engineering costs down and help drive profits for the business.
- Create and implement structures around people in the engineering organization, such as establishing processes for promotions and hiring.
- Build an empowering engineering culture by fostering psychological safety and inclusivity in all their interactions and processes. Success here leads to happy, psychologically-safe employees who can be themselves at work, combined with high application and retention rates.
- Oversee any major reorganizations or help integrate any mergers and acquisitions that the organization goes through. VPs steer the ship for engineering teams in times of organizational change. That includes supporting direct reports, redesigning and implementing new processes, and ensuring that there’s clear, healthy communication around the changes.
VP of engineering salary expectations
VP of engineering salaries will vary depending on your location and the size of the company. For example, they’re significantly higher in San Francisco, at 29% above the national average. Most VP of engineering pay packages are made up of both a base salary and some form of stock-based compensation.
Elsewhere, a VP of engineering can expect to earn a base salary of £98,000 ($114,000) in the UK, €122,000 ($122,000) in Germany, AU$165,000 ($113,000) in Australia, and ₹4,000,000 ($51,000) in India.
VP of engineering vs CTO vs director of engineering
The VP of engineering will typically slot in at one of the most senior levels of the engineering function. The role has some subtle but important differences from other senior engineering roles.
VP of engineering vs CTO:
- The VP of engineering typically reports to the CTO.
- The CTO leads the company’s technical direction – acting as a technical visionary – while the VP creates a roadmap for executing on that vision.
- While the CTO is usually responsible for creating the company’s overall technical strategy, the VP of engineering normally has a co-creation role and owns parts of it.
- The CTO manages a smaller number of direct reports than the VP, focusing on the high-level growth and direction of the company rather than the growth and direction of teams and individuals.
- As part of the c-suite, the CTO has a more external-facing role, with greater ownership over important stakeholders and the company’s thought leadership.
VP of engineering vs director of engineering:
- The director(s) of engineering typically report to the VP of engineering.
- Both roles are managers of managers and involve coaching, unblocking, and growing teams to hit strategic goals.
- The director role is more operational than the VP, focusing only on the ‘how’ (the execution of the strategy) rather than the ‘why’ (the creation of the strategy).
- The VP tends to be focused on multi-year goals, while the director is more concerned with shorter, quarterly goals and results.
- While the VP usually oversees the entire engineering organization, the director is typically responsible for a key operational area, for example platform or data engineering.
VP of engineering résumé tips
Most organizations will require VP of engineering candidates to have a degree in software engineering or similar. A master’s degree in business administration (MBA) or engineering management is also an advantage when applying for a job at this level. Otherwise, applicants normally need at least ten years of outstanding experience in a relevant engineering role.
Here are some of the key skills and areas of experience that hiring managers are looking for in a VP candidate’s résumé:
- Strong leadership skills.
- A proven record of managing high-performing development teams.
- Excellent technical knowledge and experience.
- Experience hiring software engineers.
- Experience managing large budgets.
- Experience building and maintaining external and internal stakeholder relationships.
- Deep knowledge of industry trends and best practices.
The VP of engineering interview process
Candidates for a VP role typically go through multiple rounds of interviews with the CTO, the CEO, and other important members of the software engineering senior leadership team. They are expected to provide evidence of necessary skills and experience across three key areas: leadership, management, and technology. Here are some examples of commonly asked interview questions:
- Are you comfortable setting and achieving long-term strategic engineering goals?
- Can you share an example of a time you successfully navigated conflict with a product, design, or business leader?
- What does a positive engineering culture look like, and how have you influenced the culture at your current organization?
- What’s your process for finding and hiring engineering talent?
- Can you share an example of a time you went the extra mile to support the people on your team? And a time you realized you could be doing more?
- What’s your approach to 1:1s? Why?
- Do you still code? Why/why not?
- How do you stay up-to-date with new technologies?
- Can you share an example of a technology you’ve recommended in the past six months that you no longer recommend?
Interviews aren’t just about being assessed; they’re also an opportunity to assess whether a role and organization are right for you. To find out whether the position, team, and company culture are aligned with your own goals, try asking some of the following questions:
To understand the problem you’re being hired to solve:
- Who is the ideal candidate for this role?
- Why was this job opened at the VP level and not the level below?
- Why were you looking to fill this position externally?
To understand the state of the team:
- What challenges are the team facing this quarter?
- What can I prioritize in my role as VP to help the team?
- What would you say are the team’s biggest strengths and weaknesses?
To understand the company culture:
- Why do employees leave the company?
- If you could change one thing about the company culture, what would it be?
- What are the company goals for this year?
Is a VP of engineering role right for me?
A VP of engineering position is a great opportunity to drive healthy, collaborative teams to build great software and help sustain a successful business. If you enjoy strategic thinking and helping others to grow – and want to put yourself on the CTO career path – this might be the perfect role for you.
Once you land your dream job, we’ll be here to support you with plenty of helpful LeadDev resources, from articles and videos to LeadingEng conferences, where you can learn from other high-level managers and industry leaders.