VP, Director, what? - The Engineering Manager (2023)

This post is part of a series of articles on managing managers.

Before we dive further into techniques and tools for budding managers of managers, it’s worth spending some time to get to know what sort of progression may lie ahead on the management track once you begin to go beyond managing just one team.

In this article we’ll step through some of the common job titles that are used for higher level management track positions in technology companies, with reference to the career tracks that we created at Brandwatch. We created these so that we had transparent career progression paths both for engineers already working at the company, but also for those that were applying for our vacancies so they could see how they could grow with time if they got the job.

We’ll not go into the CTO role in this article because we believe it’s fairly well understood: you run a department, either by being promoted up through the management track – sometimes over the course of a whole career – or by being the founding lead engineer at a company. However, the levels in between are often a bit of a mystery, so we’ll spend some time untangling them. It should give you a better idea of what may lie ahead for you if you choose this path, but also better understand what people at your current company are doing in those kinds of roles.

The job titles on the management track of most good technology companies are fairly standardized. You have Engineering Managers, Directors of Engineering, VPs of Engineering and then the CTO. However, what the role actually entails is a function of the size of the company. For example, a Director of Engineering at a medium sized company may have a few small teams reporting to them, but in the biggest companies (e.g. FAANG), that same job title may entail running a division of 250 people. As such, when switching to very large companies, one may have to take what looks like a job title “demotion”, even though the role that they are doing is larger.

As such, in this article we’ll look at each of the job titles and see what it might mean at a start-up or smaller company, then compare that to the equivalent position at some of the largest companies in our industry. This should give you an idea of not only what the role entails, but where you might best begin to think about your next step. Would you, for example, prefer to take on a larger role with more autonomy at a smaller company, or do you want to begin to establish yourself in larger technology companies by making the sideways step first then working your way up? Different folks have different motivations.

(Video) Going from Engineering Manager to Director

The Three Levels of War

In order to better frame the job titles below, there’s a neat, albeit scary-sounding level definition from the military: the three levels of war. I’m not a military person by any means, but they’ve certainly thought quite hard about leadership topics over the years.

These three levels are:

  • Tactical: guiding others to win individual battles and engagements.
  • Operational: planning, conducting, sustaining and adapting campaigns to accomplish strategic goals.
  • Strategic: defining outcomes that form strategic goals: why and with what we will achieve.

We can use these to better frame what it means to move up the management track.

Engineering Manager

An Engineering Manager (EM) will typically manage one team, of usually around 5-7 people. If you are an individual contributor, it is sometimes tricky to get that first EM role, since companies will sometimes favour hiring candidates who have managed people before.

In our level definition, EMs are tactical. They guide one team to ship their part of the whole. What that part of the whole is will have typically been defined for them.

One strategy for getting your first EM role is to join a fast growing company as an IC with a view to converting, ensuring that you practice and demonstrate skills that show you have suitability for leadership. This may involve nominating yourself to lead projects, mentoring others, influencing decisions and continually building a track record for shipping good quality software. If you’re not already working for a company where EM roles become available regularly, then it’s much harder to progress as you’ll have to apply elsewhere.

This website goes into the EM role in detail (see the Management 101 and Levelling up sections), and I’ve even written a book about it! So I won’t go into it further here. However, what’s important to know is that it’s that crucial first rung on the management ladder where you can begin to gain the experience that you need to consider moving upwards towards managing managers. Everyone’s gotta cut their teeth somewhere.

(Video) Engineering Management: Interviews & Hiring ft. Google Engineering Director

It’s worth mentioning that you may also see the Senior Engineering Manager job title. Typically this means that somebody is managing one team, but has much more tenure and experience than an EM without the Senior prefix. Larger companies may offer that progression step as a way of ensuring that EMs have more opportunities for career growth that don’t immediately involve taking the plunge into Director, since that requires more org chart movement. Additionally, for EMs that enjoy being able to mix technical contribution and management, the EM to Senior EM career arc can be long-lasting and highly rewarding. They can grow in influence, seniority and impact and still contribute code.

Director of Engineering

The Director of Engineering role is typically where you first begin to manage managers. I mentioned at the beginning of this article that I would explore what the role means at start-ups and at larger companies, however it’s rare to see Director of Engineering at start-ups, since it’s very much an artifact of middle management at medium to large companies.

In our level definition, Directors are operational. They coordinate and execute multiple efforts within a larger strategic goal. Typically they have more control over the how, but the why has already been decided for them.

The role itself varies across companies. However, there are often some common threads in how it is defined as the next major progression step from EM:

  • You begin to manage other managers. This means you can progress towards a reasonably sized org. Assuming that an EM may have 7 or so direct reports that are ICs, the largest team that an EM could therefore manage is that same number. However, given that a Director manages managers, they could have 7 or so managers reporting to them, each with their own team. That’s a lot more people to consider, steer and grow.
  • You typically are accountable for an operational area. What this means is that you may find yourself with a comma after your job title, followed by some words that describe the area that you own. For example, a Director of Engineering, Data Infrastructure could run multiple teams that build and maintain the core storage infrastructure of the application. A Director of Engineering, Fizzbuzz could run an org consisting of all the engineering teams producing new features in the Fizzbuzz application, one of many applications in the whole Foobar application suite.
  • You step away from driving the vehicle. Whilst EMs usually continue to write code for their team – although typically less on the critical path – Directors of Engineering will usually involve themselves much less, if at all, in committing code. Instead, their focus will be ensuring their teams are productive, coaching their managers, working on the combined engineering roadmap for their area, and maximizing efficiency and collaboration. If we use Andy Grove’s management equation of the output of a manager = the output of their team + the output of those they influence, it becomes clear that there are higher leverage activities than being in the weeds of an IDE and committing code. Instead, deciding what to do and what not to do, connecting and sharing information with peers and delegating effectively through their teams will always result in more output.

So how does this role come about? I’ve often seen it happen in two ways.

The first is that it occurs naturally through growth. As a department hires more people, EMs begin to acquire more direct reports that they can effectively manage. Teams get too big. Thus teams split, and the need for the org chart to maintain a logical grouping creates gaps for people to begin managing managers.

Although this presents a great opportunity, it’s important not to make yourself redundant if you happen to be the person getting promoted into the Director role. For example, if you end up splitting an overly large team in two, promote an EM to run one of them and report to you first whilst you run the other one. This way you can gradually ease away from driving the vehicle, which gives you a longer period of time in your comfort zone of running one team whilst delegating another to a new manager who will need ramping up.

(Video) From Manager to Director and Beyond

The second way is that Director of Engineering roles at the biggest technology companies are an entry point for experienced external managers of managers to begin to establish themselves in bigger companies. For example, someone who has experience of being a Director (but often above) at a medium-sized company may get recruited externally in order to begin to scale a new initiative, or to provide stable engineering management for an acquired team that the larger company wants to retain and grow.

It’s not uncommon to see CTOs who have run departments of around 100 join big technology companies to run a smaller team with a plan to grow rapidly. From what I have learned talking to contacts, Directors of Engineering at FAANG companies can run orgs in the hundreds of people, whereas VPs have thousands reporting up into them.

All of this sounds very exciting and important, but the step upwards to Director of Engineering is where an EM must firmly commit to management and coaching being their primary, and often only, output. Trying to hang on to technical contributions causes conflicts of interest across their teams and is, most often, inefficient as per Andy Grove’s equation. However, the good news is that excellent managers of managers are rare. If you are motivated to do it and successful at it, you are extremely hirable, and you can also make a real difference in the working day of a substantial amount of people.

Typically a Director of Engineering will report to the VP Engineering, or perhaps a Senior Director of Engineering. The Senior prefix works in the same way as it does for EM. It signposts tenure and experience.

VP Engineering

Ah, the VP level. Usually managing managers of managers. How meta! The size of the organization that a VP looks after very much depends upon the company that they work for. We’ll look at two ways that a VP Engineering role manifests below.

In our level definition, VPs are strategic. They help define the why and with what we will achieve.

Thinking of the VP Engineering as a progression from Director, there are some common themes:

(Video) 7 SENIOR MANAGER / DIRECTOR Interview Questions and Answers!

  • Accountability for a particular part of strategy. Perhaps the VP Engineering is running the Platform division, which spans everything from data ingest, classification, storage and APIs. Uptime, ease of access and speed of throughput are key, as tackled by tens of teams. Perhaps they are accountable for the organization that builds a product or suite of products that turn over large portions of the entire company’s revenue. Either way, we’re talking about significant accountability and strategy that links closely to the company’s direction.
  • Spending time thinking about what and why, rather than how. Our Directors of Engineering may be spending their time operationally on how to build and maintain a significant piece of application real estate, but VPs typically spend more time on what those pieces should be in the first place, and how they affect the company’s bottom line. They are often part of the discussion around company and department strategy since it affects the direction of their organization. It’s a senior management job where VPs lean on their technical knowledge to contribute to the conversation.
  • Coaching and steering many people towards the future. What should the division be working on in 3, 6, 9, 12 months? What about potential trajectories for the next three years? What would that look like in terms of resourcing and technology? How can they communicate that vision and coach their staff to bring their own teams along on the journey?
  • Reporting to the CTO. This is worth a whole bullet point because it can either be brilliant or frustrating. At smaller companies a VP Engineering may be the process person when compared to the hacker-in-chief CTO. This causes tension. At larger companies they may find themselves geographically distant to their manager and with many competing priorities for each of their calendars. This makes it hard to get quality time together. The same strategy applies: the need to be self-starting, to be able to make key decisions with minimal support, and to know how to fill the gaps that their manager either can’t or won’t want to focus their time on.

So how do you become a VP Engineering?

One way of doing it is by being the first engineering manager at a start-up. The VP Engineering is the counterbalance and compliment to the CTO during the early stages. They’ll be the ones owning the delivery process, the performance of engineers, resourcing and prioritization of projects, hiring, and so on. The CTO will be leading the build of the product. If the start-up is successful, it’s a great way to accelerate one’s career growth, but the experience can certainly be a trial by fire. Start-ups are not easy.

The other way is by building tenure as a Director of Engineering and creating a provable track record of operational excellence (i.e. making the trains run on time is natural to you) whilst showing aptitude for creating and implementing strategic direction, in partnership with your VP and your peers. Think cross-department initiatives, efficiencies through building systems for reuse, and being in tune with how best to invest time, money and people and get outcomes that benefit both Engineering (e.g. interesting, innovative, challenging work) and the whole business (e.g. improving speed, reducing cost, or unlocking new products). Think of the Andy Grove equation again: increasingly impactful teams, increasingly impactful influence on others.

If you have aspirations of being a VP Engineering at some of the largest technology companies in the world, then it’s worth mentioning that they rarely hire these roles externally. Due to the domain knowledge, experience and trust required to do the role at FAANG (or equivalent) companies, you’re going to have to join lower down the management track and then work your way up from there. I’ve spoken to FAANG recruiters who say that VP Engineers only ever join externally by doing that same role at other FAANG companies.

Like the EM and Director roles before, you can have a VP with the Senior prefix (SVP). You may even see Executive VP (EVP). Again, it signifies tenure, experience and remit, and sometimes whether they are part of the company’s leadership team.

Hopefully this article has been useful in demystifying what is expected in the different roles on the management track that sit between an individual contributor and the CTO. I appreciate that after reading this they may still seem equally nebulous, especially if you’re not used to having to think about fairly abstract concepts such as company or department strategy. And believe me, sometimes you’ll wish you didn’t have to!

Do check out our career tracks over on progression.fyi to get more in-depth descriptions about what each of these levels mean at Brandwatch, and be sure to compare them with those that are published for other companies – it’s not the same everywhere. You can also dig around what these levels are called at much larger companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook by checking out levels.fyi.

(Video) Final Round Interviews with Hiring Manager's VP or Director

The journey from EM to Director to VP takes you along a path from tactical to operational to strategic. It’s not for everyone. Beyond EM you typically have to make the conscious choice to put down your IDE and spend more time on coaching, people, resourcing and, dare I say it, competing priorities and politics within an organization. But it’s not all bad. It can be incredibly rewarding seeing teams, divisions and whole departments succeed.

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What is the next level after engineering manager? ›

On the management track, your career path is likely to look like, Engineering Manager -> Director of Engineering -> VP of Engineering -> SVP of Engineering .

What is above engineering manager? ›

The Principal Engineer role acts as the individual equivalent of a Senior Engineering Manager, Development. Collaborates and makes proposals across several teams on their engineering work, and helps their team members make informed decisions in alignment with the sub-department strategic plans.

What level is engineering manager? ›

At Google, engineers at L5, L6, and L7 are designated as Engineering Managers. The role of Engineering Managers is to oversee large-scale and highly technical projects and ensure they're completed.

Is VP equivalent to manager? ›

Vice presidential positions are above those of managing directors and the general manager in the hierarchy. Villanova University states that the VP of operations works with department managers to ensure their policies and decisions coordinate with the company's overall goals.

How long does it take to become an engineering manager? ›

To become an engineering manager takes 5 to 8 years.

This time includes both educational requirements and work experience. Most engineering managers come from an engineering background and then work their way up into a managerial role.

Do engineering managers make more than engineers? ›

Do engineering managers make more than engineers? In most cases they do, but there are several companies who give much higher compensation packages to engineers!

Can you go from director to VP? ›

Advancement from a managerial role to that of a Director is a huge leap in terms of responsibilities and mindset, but to successfully secure a VP position requires a very particular skill set, personality, and approach that not everyone possesses.

What is the difference between a director and a manager? ›

A manager oversees employees. A director is a manager of managers. In a healthy organization, employees will typically require closer supervision than managers, giving directors more time and space to work on high-level tasks.

Is CTO higher than VP? ›

A CTO (Chief Technology Officer) is the highest technology executive position within a company. The CTO oversees all overarching technology infrastructure while reporting directly to the CEO. The VP of Engineering, however, primarily deals with the management of development teams and preparing and optimizing budgets.

What do engineering manager do? ›

The duties of an engineering manager include planning, designing, and overseeing projects, as well as managing finances and supervising one or more engineering teams. The higher the engineering manager rises up the technical management ladder, the more engineering teams and managers fall under him/her.

How much does a engineering manager at Google make? ›

Average Google Engineering Manager yearly pay in the United States is approximately $329,610, which is 181% above the national average.

Who does VP report to? ›

He has over three years of experience working in print and digital media as a fact-checker and editor.
Vice President vs. Director.
Vice PresidentDirector
Often reports to the president or CEOOften reports to the VP
Duties are more strategicDuties are more tactical
2 more rows
13 Sept 2022

Who is higher GM or director? ›

A director of operations holds superiority over general managers and other employees. General managers are often right below directors in the company's ranking.

Is vice president higher than manager? ›

Typically, senior managers are "higher" than vice presidents, although many times a senior officer may also hold a vice president title, such as executive vice president and chief financial officer (CFO).

Do you need an MBA to be an engineering manager? ›

There's no one set degree pathway for aspiring engineering managers, though you'll almost certainly need to have a master's degree to advance to a management position. Before you can get your master's degree, however, you need to get a bachelor's degree.

Is engineering manager a good career? ›

The career ladder of an engineering manager can be pretty tough since it can take around 8-12 to become one. However, it's perceived as the only viable option or most lucrative path to a successful career in tech whereas a clearly defined path for advancement as an IC (individual contributor) is not apparent.

Is it hard to be an engineering manager? ›

It is very hard to be a great manager, and takes a lot of work and training and education and focus and experience. Engineers who are very good at their job will be surprised at how many new things there are to learn as a manager.

Do engineering managers make a lot of money? ›

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, architectural and engineering managers make a median salary of $149,530 per year.

What qualification must an engineer manager have? ›

A minimum of a bachelor's degree in an engineering specialty is usually required for an Engineering Manager. Some continue their education in business management skills by earning a master's degree in business administration (MBA), technology management (MSTM) or engineering management (MsEm or MEM).

Which type of engineering has highest salary? ›

10 Highest Paying Engineering Jobs
  • Civil Engineer. ...
  • Mechanical Engineer. ...
  • Industrial Engineer. ...
  • Biomedical Engineer. ...
  • Electrical Engineer. ...
  • Chemical Engineer. ...
  • Software Engineer. ...
  • Computer Engineer.
21 Jun 2022

Is engineering manager a promotion? ›

A promotion means continuing to do the same thing, while being paid more to do it. Becoming an engineering manager means transitioning to a different role with different responsibilities. In other words, a separate career track.

Is engineering manager a good career path? ›

Engineering management offers opportunities for people with technical know-how, leadership skills, and an eye for detail. Also, engineering manager jobs pay well, offer job security, and may require only a bachelor's degree. The best portal to an exciting career like this one is an engineering management degree.

Is engineering manager a good career? ›

The career ladder of an engineering manager can be pretty tough since it can take around 8-12 to become one. However, it's perceived as the only viable option or most lucrative path to a successful career in tech whereas a clearly defined path for advancement as an IC (individual contributor) is not apparent.

Should engineering manager be tech lead? ›

That said, the focus of these two positions is quite distinct: the engineering manager focuses on people and processes, whereas the tech lead focuses on system and software developer-related tasks. Because there are some similarities between the two positions, in some cases, the same person takes on both roles.

What do engineering manager do? ›

The duties of an engineering manager include planning, designing, and overseeing projects, as well as managing finances and supervising one or more engineering teams. The higher the engineering manager rises up the technical management ladder, the more engineering teams and managers fall under him/her.

What qualifications must an engineer manager have? ›

Engineering Manager Requirements:

Master's degree in engineering management, technical management, or business administration. Bachelor's degree in the engineering field. Many years' engineering experience. Proven supervisory and technical skills.

What is the responsibility of engineering manager? ›

An Engineering Manager is responsible for developing the overall concepts of new products and/or solving problems that may prevent their completion. They direct, plan accordingly, and spend time supervising employees in different departments throughout the project.

What do engineering managers earn? ›

Salary Ranges for Engineering Managers

The salaries of Engineering Managers in the US range from $40,000 to $500,000 , with a median salary of $150,000 . The middle 57% of Engineering Managers makes between $150,000 and $266,000, with the top 86% making $500,000.

What are the three skills for engineering managers? ›

5 essential skills for an engineering manager
  • Technical knowledge. Most top engineering managers have a background in engineering, complemented with a higher qualification in engineering management. ...
  • Project management. ...
  • Communication. ...
  • Decision making. ...
  • Delegation.
6 Dec 2019

How many hours do engineering managers work? ›

Most architectural and engineering managers work full time and some work more than 40 hours a week. These managers are often under considerable pressure to meet deadlines and budgets.

Does an engineering manager code? ›

Engineering Managers Must Be Technical

Generally, engineering managers write less code than the senior developers on their team, but they should write some code to keep their skills sharp.

Is it hard to be an engineering manager? ›

It is very hard to be a great manager, and takes a lot of work and training and education and focus and experience. Engineers who are very good at their job will be surprised at how many new things there are to learn as a manager.

How do engineering managers grow? ›

Here are a few places to start building trust within your team.
  1. Ask questions. One of the most powerful tools managers have is asking good questions. ...
  2. Be curious. ...
  3. Connect to the bigger picture. ...
  4. Involve engineers in decision making. ...
  5. Give feedback for growth. ...
  6. Coach engineers. ...
  7. Sponsor engineers. ...
  8. Build trust.
5 Jun 2020

What is the difference between an engineering manager and a technical manager? ›

The Engineering Manager manages the team's process. They adapt and improve the way the team operates. This helps the team always improve. A Technical Lead oversees the quality of the team's technical work.

Is lead better than manager? ›

In short, while both leads and managers are responsible for leading a team of people, leads are more technically oriented, helping their subordinates develop more profound hard skills. At the same time, managers are those involved in negotiating with stakeholders regarding high-level business goals and strategy.

Is a lead engineer a manager? ›

Although both roles have some overlap, their focus is different: the Tech Lead is in charge of the System while the Engineering Manager is in charge of the People. If the team is small and/or the leader has a lot of experience as Engineering Manager and Tech Lead, the same person might perform both roles.


1. Top 25 Engineering Manager Interview Questions and Answers for 2022
2. The Difference between Managers and Directors (with former CEO)
(The Companies Expert)
3. Going from Director of Engineering to VP
(Team Plato)
4. From Manager to Director: Guide to Managing Managers
(Coding Sans)
5. What Does A Google Engineering Manager Do?
(Clément Mihailescu)
6. What Does It Take To Be A Successful Engineering Manager?
(Engineering Management Institute)
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