Head of Engineering

What does a Head of Engineering do?

A Head of Engineering is responsible for growing and scaling the engineering organization across their company and advising top leadership on how engineering should function. A Head of Engineering may also need to show how their team can impact the company’s strategic or revenue-based goals.

Heads of Engineering may spend minimal, if any, time coding, and may instead spend their time hiring senior leaders to guide smaller teams within the engineering organization.

How is a Head of Engineering different from a VP of Engineering?

While this depends on the company and company size, the difference between a Head of Engineering and VP of Engineering may be minimal. Smaller companies or startups may use the title “Head of Engineering” for their first senior engineering hire (for example - a person who reports directly to a CEO or Chief Technology Officer), and who will be responsible for growing a team over time.

What is a typical background of a Head of Engineering?

  • Many years of Engineering experience: Many Heads of Engineering have 10 or more years of experience in the Engineering field, and may have worked in a variety of engineering roles across different companies. A Head of Engineering may also an advanced degree, like a Master’s or PhD in a technical field.
  • Experience with hiring and managing diverse teams: For seasoned Heads of Engineering, they should have many years of experience when it comes to hiring - along with a deep understanding of what makes a successful engineer and how to spot someone who will thrive at their particular organization. Heads of Engineering should be able to provide Engineering Managers or Directors with ideal skillsets and traits for roles their team is trying to hire for so the entire organization is aligned, and make sure that different departments or managers are following the same strategies.
  • Excellence in coding languages or other technologies: Although a Head of Engineering may not code or build much themselves in their role (or at least not as much as their team), they should have an excellent understanding of languages and technologies their team uses, so they can evaluate their team’s skills and have a rough understanding of how long certain initiatives take.

What does a Head of Engineering do?

A Head of Engineering will have many different job responsibilities, many of which will grow and change over time! But here are several responsibilities your Head of Engineering may have when they begin the job.
  • Hiring and growing the best team possible: Heads of Engineering should be confident in their ability to hire the right talent - and grow their teams to fit the goals of their organization.
  • Clearly articulate their strategies and progress to their CEO or a board: A Head of Engineering will often be responsible for presenting their overall strategy for the engineering organization (hiring, projects they’re prioritizing, initiatives they are funding, etc.) and should be able to demonstrate how these goals can translate into broader company goals like fundraising, valuations, revenue, entry into a new market, or more.
  • Develop roadmaps and long-term organization planning: A Head of Engineering will need to be able to provide roadmaps for how long engineering initiatives and projects will take, and what key milestones need to be in place before arriving at the next stop on the roadmap.

What are some of the skills a successful Head of Engineering should have?

  • Ability to thrive in ambiguous situations: Heads of Engineering will often have to make decisions for their team without 100% of the information. Waiting too long to perfect a feature, or remaining indecisive on implementing a new tech stack company-wide, can result in the competition getting ahead. Seasoned Heads of Engineering will understand this and know they need to make decisions quickly, so the company has time to pivot.
  • A deep understanding of all the different kinds of engineers, or engineering work their company may need: There are many types of engineers - from software to hardware, security to machine learning, frontend to backend. Even though it’s unlikely a Head of Engineering will have worked in all these fields, having a baseline understanding of what these functions do is beneficial.
  • Ability to allocate budgets across an engineering organization: Heads of Engineering are usually responsible for a budget for their team, and it’s up to them to decide how these funds are spent. How much of a budget should be invested in salaries and employee training? How much in computing technologies? How much in migrating to a new cloud system, or integrating with a new API? Heads of Engineering should have an understanding of their team’s as well as their company’s priorities, and effectively be able to translate budget into these priorities.

How do I know if I should hire a Head of Engineering or a Director of Engineering?

The answer to this question depends on many factors, including the size of your organization, hiring budget, and what your current engineering team looks like. If you’re a smaller company or a startup without any engineering background or knowledge, and your success will rest heavily on developing a new software - you may be more inclined to hire a Head of Engineering.

But perhaps you already have an engineering background, or believe you can provide more guidance in the beginning stages to your new engineering hire for what they should focus on. Perhaps a Director of Engineering role is a better option for you.