Traits of Successful VPs of Engineering

Since I talk to so many tech executives and am exposed to a lot of companies of different sizes, I often get asked what makes the best stand out. Even though this is definitely a frequently-asked-question for me, I refrained from putting this into writing earlier as I felt like this is straightforward. Recent discussions made me realize my readers would find this useful, and so I decided to publish this. I would love to hear your thoughts! Without further ado, here are the traits that I see most common in successful VPEs (and some CTOs).

Product Mastery

One of the concepts that I keep harping on. Everyone in Engineering, and especially leadership, should be proficient in the company’s business. One has to understand the product, the problem it solves for the users, the users, the market, the competition, etc.

I gave a few examples on the Tech Exec Podcast, but a recent one is the fact that some of the brightest Intel engineers are still unaware of the news about Apple’s new M1 chip. If someone disrupts your industry, you want your people to be on it—not to try and mimic it, but to understand where the market is going.

Executive Mindset

Another concept that comes up a lot on here, which talks about the fact that the best leaders are forces of positivity and optimism. Many in our industry are used to cynical quips like Silicon Valley’s Gilfoyle. It might feel clever, but that kind of mindset doesn’t really rally the troops, does it?

Executive mindset is about projecting can-do—anything is possible. Start with that assumption and then see how you can make it work. Think about the difference, when someone shows you a chess set with a given position, between the question “what would you do next” and the instruction to “find the mate in two.” If someone tells you things are possible, you will try harder. That’s human nature.

Instilling Purpose

Going hand in hand with the executive’s own vision, being able to instill purpose in a team is how an executive creates momentum and keeps motivation high. I’ve written at length about this here.


Humility is vitally important when it comes to how tech executives view the other departments in the organization. Do not underestimate the value of sales or marketing, or force decisions down Product’s throat just because you can.

Accept that those are professions that are essential for the company’s success, and work in tandem with them, and not opposing them. For more, see these articles.

Challenging the Status Quo

Every organization needs to reinvent itself continually as it grows. That’s especially important for R&D, where constantly changing the way things are being done is required to result in a steady stream of innovation and improvements that propel the company forward.

Getting used to “that’s how we do it” is easier and reduces cognitive load. Unfortunately, it also results in atrophy. Make challenging the status quo a habit.

Take Healthy Bets

Similarly, great leaders take on some risks. We’re not talking about regularly risking the business away on a whim. However, executives that are obsessed with predictability in the form of always hitting 100% of their promised roadmap are doing the company a disservice.

Learn to live with some risks; otherwise, you will regularly undershoot. Healthy bets are those where the gain outweighs the risk. Make sure to do your risk management properly (with preventive measures and contingencies in place) and move on. Not making a decision, not pushing harder, is riskiest.

Speak Business

Tech executives are responsible for the tech, but they have to be executives. Avoid explaining refactorings in technical terms, but teach your team to make the case for them with business ROI. Understand the roadmap so that you can help shape it and the work better. Become an integral part of the executive team.

The process of achieving this is what I call moving upstream. It is a required must for becoming a top VPE.

I trust this list will provide you with some interesting things to focus on in 2021.

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