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Hiring a CTO or VP Engineering

As an executive search (headhunting) firm that specializes in working with clients in the internet, software, gaming and broader technology sectors, hiring a CTO or VP Engineering is one of the most common requests we get from clients. Every technology company needs a strong engineering leader who can ensure that high quality products are developed. But what are some of the key dynamics for this kind of hire?


Building a well-rounded technology organization

Typically, most technology companies need engineering leadership that can;

  • Define the right architecture
  • Define the right technology strategy and roadmap
  • Work closely with key colleagues like the Chief Product Officer and CEO
  • Hire effectively
  • Provide leadership, motivation and mentoring to the team
  • Define the right development methodologies
  • Promote and foster a strong culture that attracts and retains talent
  • Ensure that high quality products are shipped on time and on budget

It’s usually very difficult to find all of these skills in one person. Often there may be a founder CTO who is a brilliant technologist, but their strengths and interests are in coding and defining the architecture and technology roadmap, rather than the more operational and people-focussed tasks of hiring and leading the engineering teams. Often this type of CTO needs to be complemented by hiring a VP Engineering. This VP Engineering needs to have strong operational skills – being able to hire well, project manage, inspire others, define the right development methodologies and ensure that high quality products are shipped on time and on budget.

In this context, the VP Engineering need not necessarily have very close experience of developing software products in exactly the same area of technology. Whilst they probably should have worked for a company in the same general sector – SaaS, internet, gaming etc. – experience of working with companies at a similar stage of development is usually more important than having worked for a competitor. There’s a huge difference between working for a well-established, multinational corporate and an entrepreneurial VC or PE backed company. The latter environments usually involve a high amount of change, the need to make ambiguous strategic decisions, and more limited resources. Hiring a technology leader who has been through the challenges of growth before can be highly additive in this context.

Designing an effective recruitment process

CTOs and VPs of Engineering are nearly always in high demand due to the essential nature of their roles. This means there is intense competition for talent, and you need to make sure your recruitment process is as effective as possible when it comes to both attracting and assessing candidates.

CTOs and VP Engineering candidates are often bombarded by approaches from recruiters on platforms like LinkedIn. If you are proactively approaching candidates this way, try to make your introductory message seem as attractive as possible, balancing giving the candidate details that make the role seem attractive (e.g. team sizes, industry details, funding rounds, reporting lines, role responsibilities etc.) with leaving a little mystique that makes them want to find out more. Try to personalize your message as much as possible – an obviously “cut and pasted” message won’t make anyone feel special.

Most technology leaders want to work with interesting products – ones that might solve important problems, have a big impact on a particular market or geography, or have the potential to grow quickly. How can you describe the product proposition in a simple, accessible way that makes it seem as interesting as possible? Having high quality job descriptions is very important too when hiring a CTO or VP Engineering – this is a key sales tool and many candidates will want to see this before jumping onto a call with you. Write a detailed, thoughtful job description in PowerPoint that describes the company, product, market and role responsibilities. Use images to make it visually appealing and not too wordy. See our guide to converting candidates for more details.

As part of your interview process you might well want to technically assess the candidate by having a member of your engineering team chat to the candidate. It’s also often worth taking references (official and unofficial) on your lead CTO or VP Engineering candidates to make sure they have the attributes you are looking for in them.  A combination of technical, behavioural and competency-based interviews is often a good idea when hiring a CTO or VP Engineering. We have also put together a guide to different interview techniques which can be helpful in this context.