To help you, we spoke to three VPs and compiled their advice in this article.
- Lucie Semmau is Deputy Chief Technology Officer at Bridge, a SaaS payment solution based on open banking. After 3 years working abroad (in Dubai), she has now been working in the world of fintech for 7 years. She held various senior positions in communications before switching to the tech side and managing a technical team of about 40 people.
- Nicolas Tricot has been VP of engineering at Padok, a Cloud and Devops agency, since 2021. A dozen people report to him. Before that, he worked as a backend developer for ten years, then as a project manager for Viadéo, as an Engineering Manager at BlaBlaCar and as Head of Engineering for BackMarket. He is also a member of Tech.Rocks.
- Cyrille Alleg has been VP of Software Engineering of the contract management solution Concord Worldwide since 2017. He manages a team of around 40 people in Paris and twice as many in San Francisco. He has over 15 years of experience in software development, agile coaching and tech team management.
1. Lead, Manager, Director, VP... What are the options for developers?
Before getting into the more practical advice, let's start with the big picture: what are the different career paths available when starting a career in code? The short answer is that there are three main options.
The developer’s three career paths
- The managerial route
This is the most straightforward option and is seen as the most prestigious (but it is not for everyone). It leads to the role of VP of engineering which we will be looking at in detail in this article!
- The expert route
This role does not involve managing people, but rather deepening technical expertise as an individual contributor.
Some people wrongly assume that this path is not as highly valued as a management role. Yet it is just as important and fulfilling... as we will discuss in the next edition of talent club.
- The entrepreneurial route
The third possible path is creating your own company. Tech profiles are indeed essential elements of a complementary team of founders (alongside business/commercials and designers). This is a great way to become a CTO right away!
- Bonus: other related jobs
Last possibility: quit web development and convert to tech-adjacent jobs. We recently talked about transitioning to product management. In addition, there are also commercial and data-related roles to consider.
Needless to say, the boundaries between these paths are permeable and it is possible to switch from one to another at different points in your career.
The managerial career framework
In this article, we will focus on the managerial path, the one that leads to the position of VP of Engineering.
First of all, it is interesting to look at the different career frameworks proposed by companies.
A career framework is a tool usually created by the HR team to list the different career stages of their employees, and the conditions for accessing them. It allows employees to understand their possible evolution within the company and to plan for the future.
Some companies share their career frameworks publicly (there are plenty of examples at https://progression.fyi/). Let's take a look at Brandwatch, which has been very well documented by their VP.
Naturally, job titles, progression routes and skill requirements vary from company to company. But this diagram represents a kind of standard. Good to know:
- First you'll need to gain a few years experience as a junior individual contributor.
- Once you reach a certain level of experience, you will have to choose whether to become an expert or a manager
- If you choose the managerial route, you will have to work your way up to Engineering Manager (leading a team) and then Director/Head of Engineering (leading team managers) before reaching your goal of VP of Engineering (leading managers of managers!)
You can access Brandwatch's detailed career framework here.
Am I fit to be a manager?
This is a good thing to ask yourself at this stage! This is why we started by giving you different perspectives. Not everyone is cut out to be a manager or wants to be one... and that's not a bad thing (on the contrary).
Companies need managers but they also need experts. There is room for everyone. The important thing is to feel comfortable in your role. It is therefore not unusual to see a VP of Engineering become an individual contributor at some point in their career, or to see experts taking the managerial route later on.
To help you think about this, you should know that if:
- you are not only passionate about the technical aspect of your job
- you enjoy dealing with people, attending meetings, managing day-to-day problems and talking to stakeholders
- you are interested in having responsibility over things you are not 100% familiar with
... then chances are you'd be good in management. To go further, we've put together this Job Matcher, a tool to help you align your motivations and your career choices.
If you are still hesitating, the rest of this article will take you behind the scenes of the daily life of a VP Engineering.
2. What does a VP of Engineering actually do?
Becoming VP of Engineering is an aspiration for many. But, beyond the title, what does it really entail?
"It's a human relations job that involves a lot of meetings," says Lucie Semmau with a smile. "You have to be able to constantly identify problems and work out how to solve them," says Cyrille Alleg. These problems are often far removed from any technical considerations.
This is demonstrated by one of Lucie Semmau's typical days:
- A committee meeting to make a decision about a very specific tech issue
- A call with an American supplier to negotiate the price of a debugging tool
- Budget negotiations to recruit a new team member
- Candidate interviews
- Building the tech roadmap with the engineering managers
This role requires being able to navigate between different stakeholders (sales, marketing, support, tech, legal, management etc.). According to our interviewees, there are 3 main missions in this role.
"You have to be able to anticipate the future in order to not be affected by changes in the market or within the company".
Nicolas Tricot, VP Engineering at Padok
A) Management and supervision
As a manager of managers, the first challenge for a VP of Engineering is obviously the tech team. "I am responsible for their development so that they can do their work efficiently", says Cyrille Alleg. Nicolas Tricot adds: "My role is to help the people in the team grow by getting them to a place where they can develop their skills".
This first mission involves a wide range of responsibilities:
- Managing conflicts
- Choosing and setting up tooling for development workflow, incident management, release management, ticketing etc.
- Defining the organisation and work methods of the teams
- Communicating the company's objectives and vision
- Defining career plans and development
- Performance management
"Developers are in such high demand on the market that if you don't pay attention to this aspect of the culture and working methods, you'll end up with turnover problems," says Cyrille Alleg. "Usually, a person joins or leaves a company because of a manager. That's why these are key roles," says Lucie Semmau.
This point builds upon the previous one. In the recruitment process, the VP of Engineering is certainly helped by the talent acquisition team, but he or she must still participate in the elaboration of the recruitment process, the salary scale, the career framework and the company's employer brand. For example, this could mean highlighting good practices in the ecosystem (articles, conferences, etc.), not to mention accepting to do interviews!
"You have to be able to anticipate and plan for the future in order not to be affected by the evolution of the market or the company", summarises Nicolas Tricot. "Previously, as an Engineering Manager, I was responsible for my functional scope. Today, as VP, the scale is much larger as it involves the whole company."
For example, if the company is looking to go international, it would entail getting ahead of technical issues such as the payment system, infrastructure scalability, integrating new suppliers etc. "You are not the one in charge of 'doing'," adds Nicolas Tricot. Instead, you take a step back to make sure everything is under control, while sometimes digging deeper into specific issues.
3. What skills are needed to become VP of engineering?
Spoiler alert: developer skills are no longer important at this stage. "The challenge is to be able to step back from the purely technical side of things," says Lucie Semmau, who was never a developer herself.
At Brandwatch, technical knowledge is only one of the 15 skills that a VP of Engineering must master. Influence, mentoring, consensus building, conflict management, vision, communication and authenticity are just as essential to a VP as technical knowledge. Take a look at their very detailed doc.
Let's take a closer look at some of the necessary qualities our interviewees mentioned.
"When recruiting a manager, a lot of attention will be paid to his or her ability to communicate knowledge in a clear and straightforward way".
Christine Metaillier, team lead for France Tech Recruiters & Sourcers at talent.io
“This is the main quality I look for” says Nicolas Tricot straight away. “In practice, this means 1) listening to others, 2) remaining calm and not getting carried away easily and 3) being able to get a message across effectively.”
Christine Metaillier, team lead for France Tech Recruiters & Sourcers at talent.io, shares this opinion: "When recruiting a manager, a lot of attention will be paid to his or her ability to communicate knowledge in a clear and straightforward way.” This also involves being able to have influence both internally and externally.
"If you are not paying attention to your surroundings, you are dead", says Cyrille Alleg. In other words, you need to be able to keep an eye on things and have a strategic vision. Reading a lot, participating in meetups or conferences, rubbing shoulders with other leaders, knowing the different businesses and areas of your company... These are just a few of the ways to stay in direct contact with the current best practices and to form your own opinions, which will allow you to make the best decisions.
Bad managers are people who remain stuck in their former operational mindset. As a result, they are often unable to make decisions or have a sense of priorities.
C) The ability to lead others
After all, this is what being a leader is all about. "It requires organisational skills and empathy, you need to provide the right level of information, which must be adapted to your audience," says Lucie Semmau. "But it also requires commitment and willpower: in other words people who have a strong drive !"
As the strong arm of the CTO, the VP of Engineering must indeed pull his or her team forward and upward. Coaching managers is part of the job. The VP's energy and principles must then spread throughout the organisation.
How to improve your skills
As we have just seen, the qualities needed to climb the managerial ladder fall within the realm of soft skills. These are skills that can be learned from training courses but also, and above all, with time, experience... and determination!
In an article in which he recounts the first 10 years of his career, from junior software engineer to engineering manager at BackMarket, Jean-Charles Sorin says that before becoming a manager "he liked to present and defend engineering topics for the team". In other words, you have to project yourself in the role before you take it on. In doing so, you will show that you have the drive to get there.
"You have to lean on the people, either internally or from other companies, who have the jobs you want. This is the best way to learn and progress.”
Lucie Semmau, Deputy CTO of Bridge
Another practical tip is to draw inspiration from others and be proactive about your progression. Indeed, you won't be able to build all these skills alone. “You have to lean on the people, either internally or from other companies, who have the jobs you want," explains Lucie Semmau. “This is the best way to learn and progress.”
How do you do this? Via Linkedin, Twitter or tech leader communities such as Tech.Rocks, The Lead Developer, CTO Craft or Rand's Leadership group. Alternatively, you can call on the services of a coach, either within your own network or via platforms such as Plato. This is a good way of combating impostor syndrome... which all our interviewees have suffered from at one point or another in their careers! In other words: it's normal to feel out of place, especially at the beginning
4. The frustrating aspects of becoming VP of Engineering
There are not only good sides to becoming VP of Engineering. To give you a complete picture of the role, and so that you can make informed career decisions, here are some of the main frustrations you should anticipate.
A) No more code
If your real passion is software development, then by all means, follow the expertise route! As a manager, "the higher up the hierarchy you go, the further away you'll be from code", confirms Lucie Semmau. "You can keep a foot in it to keep your knowledge up to date, but you have to give up your status as a technical expert," confirms Nicolas Tricot.
Tricot mentions another associated frustration: "Unlike web development, the contribution you make on a daily basis is less tangible. The results of your actions may only be visible after months or even years! This is what his ex-colleague Jean-Charles Sorin calls "invisible work".
"It's up to you to answer your own questions. If you are not resilient, forget about this job!
Cyrille Alleg, VP of Software Engineering at Concord Worldwide
"It's up to you to answer your own questions. If your company has an issue with customers, that's your problem," says Cyrille Alleg, before concluding: "If you are not resilient, forget about this job!”
"People are constantly coming to you with problems that need solving, and this can get tiresome in the long run," agrees Nicolas Tricot The more responsibility you take on, the harder it is to obtain honest and transparent feedback about what you are doing. Your team or your entourage may feel too shy to talk to you frankly. This is why it is important to have a community of peers to talk to.
A manager is not given a task, but a direction to follow. It is up to him or her to find a way to lead the whole team in this direction. Many people want this autonomy, but it implies a great deal of responsibility, which is sometimes heavy to carry. "Especially as you are asked to have an informed opinion on everything all the time, sometimes with very little information. You are the last link in the chain," says Lucie Semmau.
A manager is also a spokesperson for the board. This means that sometimes, if you have not succeeded in shaping a decision that ends up going against your principles or with which you disagree... you still have to defend it before your team. That's the price of success.
We hope that our behind-the-scenes tour of the VP of Engineering role will help you see things more clearly and make the right decisions
Key takeaway from this article:
- Management is not the only path of progression possible. It is a fulfilling career path for people who are more interested in strategy and team management than in technical expertise.
- Being a VP of Engineering means being a manager, a recruiter, and a strategy manager all rolled into one
- The higher up in the hierarchy you go, the less important technical skills are, and the more important soft skills (especially communication skills) become.
- VP of Engineering is not something you do alone. You have to be able to surround yourself with people, learn constantly and always seek new knowledge.
- It's a position of influence... but it's not suitable for all personality types
To go further on the subject:
- The Managing Managers section of James Stanier's blog
- Examples of career frameworks