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Engineering Wars: The Hardest Search in Tech?

Neon River’s Peter Franks explores one of the hardest assignments in executive search, finding an Engineering leader:

Ask most technology industry headhunters what the toughest assignment to execute is, and there’s a good chance they will tell you that it’s finding an Engineering leader for an internet or software company. Competition for strong technology leaders is intense because the function is responsible for building the products that enable firms to differentiate from one another. A technology company with a poor product and customer experience will not prosper long.

Whilst the intense competitive demand for the role is undoubtedly a major reason why VP Engineering or CTO searches fail, there is another major cause that is often overlooked. Too often, when the role is being defined, there isn’t enough clear thinking about priorities.

What’s in a job title?

The technology leader role can manifest itself in different ways, but when you are a technology company, the focus shifts away from managing the company’s internal IT infrastructure (as important as that is) and towards developing the product of the business. Whether that product is business software or a consumer oriented website or app, most technology organisations need:

  • Effective operational leadership – someone to manage Engineering and associated functions, ensuring that software is developed on-time, on budget and to high standard. Someone to define software development methodologies that are fit for purpose and provide leadership and direction to the team.
  • High customer empathy, the ability to create and refine commercially successful products. This usually entails leadership of the product management function.
  • Technical leadership and expertise, including overseeing the architecture of the product.

The first key point to note is that it is almost impossible to find someone who is excellent at all of the above. Don’t think about your technology leadership team in terms of job titles, think about it in terms of capabilities.

Structuring the team

At Neon River we are often asked to hire a VP Engineering to compliment a CTO (sometimes a founder) who provides excellent product vision and technical leadership (b + c above) but who needs help with organising and managing the team. A VP Engineering in this context would need to be very strong at providing the operational leadership to the team, but need not index highly on product management and technical leadership if that is covered elsewhere.

This is the key – of course you can try and pitch your company better and enrol candidates more effectively (and this is just as important) – but if you can really focus on what you need, it will undoubtedly increase the supply of relevant candidates. There are many more candidates out there who are strong operationally, than who excel in all the disciplines above.

Equally, you might have a scenario where you have a VP Engineering who provides good organisational leadership, but who needs complementing with a more customer oriented product management leader. A VP Product and VP Engineering can work effectively as peers reporting to a CEO.

Viewed this way, the technology leadership team can be structured effectively in different ways – perhaps a CTO with a VP Engineering reporting into them, or a VP Engineering and VP Product working together as peers, or any one of a number of combinations.

Finding the answer

Once you’ve defined your priorities, it’s time to really zero in on the right candidates. If you need product or technical leadership, these are often strongest at the headquarters of technology companies. Avoid candidates who have been only implementing or localising technology decisions made elsewhere. That said, you need to be aware that some companies have deliberately internationalised their technology operations (to get broader access to talent), or have broadly dispersed technology organisations due to international acquisitions. Make sure there is someone in your interview process who has the skills to technically qualify candidates too.

Certain companies tend to hire high calibre technology leaders – obvious examples might include Google in the internet sector or Citrix in software – and these companies (and their alumni) are often excellent places to look for talent.

If it’s a more operationally minded candidate that you need, it’s important to focus on those candidates that have the ability to work effectively in your environment. A VP Engineering working with a founder CTO has a very different role to one in a large, matrixed international technology business. Candidates can of course be successful in both environments, but the influencing and remote management skills in a big company can be a shock to those without experience of having worked in that environment before. Equally, working in a resource-constrained, ambiguous environment with influential founders can also provide a culture shock to the uninitiated. Make sure that you test that candidates have the right cultural fit and communications skills to succeed in your environment.

The failed technology leader search is caused as much by the wrong targeting as the difficulty in attracting candidates in a very competitive market. If you really think about what your business needs from the role, you can eliminate a lot of time spent looking at irrelevant candidates who lack the right skills or cultural fit to thrive in your environment.