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Hiring your first Head of Software Engineering

February 20, 2024

Hiring a Head of Software Engineering is an important decision that can shape the future of your technology team (and, by default, your entire company)!

This role not only demands exceptional technical skills, but also leadership qualities that inspire a team to do their best work - even when working on difficult problems.

After working with several of our clients to hire this role, we’re sharing some of our tips for companies making their first Head of Software Engineering hire.


What to Look for in a Head of Software Engineering


Technical expertise: A strong foundation in software development practices, programming languages, architecture, and system design is non-negotiable. Heads of Software Engineering who are removed from the day to day, or haven't worked on software engineering projects themselves in a while (preferring only to supervise) may not be the best fit. Heads of Engineering should also be skilled at making high-level technical decisions and are extremely knowledgeable when it comes to emerging technologies.


Leadership and management skills: Look for candidates who have demonstrated the ability to lead and manage teams effectively. They should be capable of mentoring, motivating, and guiding their team members towards achieving technical excellence. We find that successful candidates demonstrate empathy and show they will be an empathetic leader to their direct reports, becoming strong advocates for their team.


Communication: Effective communication is crucial for a Head of Software Engineering. An ideal candidate should be able to articulate technical concepts to non-technical stakeholders and foster a collaborative environment within the team.


Significant experience:  We often see many of our candidates seek Heads of Software Engineering who have 3-5 years of experience leading teams, and 7 or more years of engineering experience in general. 10+ years of experience is also common for a Head of Software Engineering.


Previous roles that Heads of Software Engineering may come from


Some candidates may make a lateral move from a “Head of Engineering” role at one company to another one, but others may come from different experiences and may be seeking a promotion by joining your company (especially if they're coming from a larger company to join a startup). Common previous roles that a Head of Software Engineering may hold include: 

Technical Lead: A role focusing on leading projects and technical teams, often acting as a bridge between the development team and management.

Engineering Manager or Director of Engineering: This may be the most common previous role before becoming Head of a department. In these roles, Heads of Software Engineering candidates would have managed teams and projects, overseeing the development process from conception to deployment.

Architecture Roles: Such as Solutions Architect or Systems Architect, where they designed complex systems and made critical architectural decisions (although this may be less common).


Interview questions for a Head of Software Engineering


To assess a candidate, consider some of the following interview questions: 

What’s an example of a tradeoff you had to make on a project, and can you describe the situation? This question helps you gauge their critical thinking skills and how they act on their feet. Decisions will often need to be made without all the relevant information. Can this person make decisions to optimize for the best outcome, even if it isn't perfect?

Can you describe a particularly challenging technical problem you solved? This question helps gauge their problem-solving skills and technical depth.


Can you describe something (a project, feature, etc.) you built from inception to launch? This question will help you determine if they’re right for the stage of your business. For example, if they can only articulate projects they started working on only when they were at a later stage, or fully built, they may not be the right candidate for an early stage company.


How do you stay updated with new technologies, and how do you decide which ones to implement? This assesses their commitment to learning and strategic thinking in technology adoption.


How would you go about hiring a team of engineers who report to you? This question will help you learn how they approach hiring, from where they would go to find candidates (ideally, bringing in colleagues from their network) to the earliest roles they would hire on a team that hasn't been built yet.


How do you approach setting goals and milestones for your team? This questions helps understand their planning, organizational, and leadership abilities.


Can you discuss a project that did not meet its objectives? What did you learn, and how did you move forward? This question evaluates their resilience, ability to learn from failure, and leadership in challenging times.


Head of Software Engineering salary ranges

We've seen salary ranges vary widely for Heads of Software Engineering, but on average, these candidates can typically command a base salary of $179,000 - $248,000, plus equity and benefits.

Interested in learning more about Heads of Engineering, or other roles we hire for? Check out our Roles page.

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