Co-Parenting the Baby: When the VP Engineering Joins a Startup

There are three for you now: you, the VPE and the baby.

The Moment: You Need a VP Engineering

So the moment comes: you have traction, people are buying the product, and you’re hiring engineers. Maybe your team is ten, or fifty, or a hundred. Up to now, it’s been fine — things got done, perhaps with a few rough edges, but the system got built. But now something’s not working. Perhaps it’s missed deadlines, or endless quality issues, or just a frantic, close-to-burnout sense from whoever is managing the engineers.

It’s that time. You have to hire an Engineering VP.

You need somebody to make the trains run on time, figure out the “people issues”, finally deal with all the compensation weirdness you accumulated as you scrapped and fought to build the team, add some (although you speak the word cautiously) process, maybe sort out a career ladder.

So you do the search. It takes forever, usually. Who can you trust? Who is going to take this incredible thing you’ve built, and continue to grow it, without smothering it with rules and roadblocks and managerial blandness? Fifteen years of experience, or three with a brilliant track record? Strategic visionary or management expert? Technical brilliance, or people skills? There’s a lot to worry about.

Finally, you find the right person. Now things get interesting.

Your Baby Grows Up

The thing you (and “you” here might mean technical founder, or very early CTO, or just The Person Who Wrote Most of the Code), have built is deeply personal. You knew it when it was an idea, maybe a wireframe mockup, and a couple of hundred lines of code. You grew it, and remember the first time it did the thing it’s supposed to do — the thing unique to itself and to you. It was just some of what you’d imagined — a beginning, but there it was, working. You remember the demo where the first customer leaned back, smiled and said yes, they’d use it, and they’d pay for it.

You spent time with it in the early hours of the morning as the first customers figured out how great it was and how much was missing and what was broken. You showed it to a couple of people you’d worked with before. They got it. They signed on. You shared it with them, in a basement, or a desk in an incubator space, or a coffee shop, and they helped to make it really work.

It began to become real. A product of your imagination and creativity mapped into code, and living in the minds and work of customers, sales people, growth hackers, investors. It occupied (and still does!), your waking hours, your weekends, your four o’clock in the morning realizations. It dominated your personal life and your thoughts of the future.

Your thing, your baby, the thing that had occupied such a massive part of you for years, becomes a toddler. Precocious, full of potential, but feisty, unpredictable. It’s growing fast. You’re not sure how to handle it, exactly.

So you invite somebody in to help. And now you have to share.