October 31, 2016.
I was chatting with an engineering manager last week and he mentioned that the jobs he really wants are VP of Engineering roles, but feels that no one is willing to take a gamble on him. Instead he's looking at line management opportunities in fast growing companies where he can go in with a small team and rapidly grow managerial scope as the company grows around him.
Rather than casting a stone, I promptly threw all my stones away: I am guilty of pursing exactly that strategy in a previous job hunt.
If you luck into a good situation, career progression can be so automatic early in your career that it can take a while to realize later in your career that your progression's slope has flattened out like a penny thrown off the empire state building and then run over by a coal train.
Broadly there are three types of engineering management jobs:
Especially early in your management career, it's easy to conflate reaching the next "rung" with reaching a certain number of people you've managed. Following this line of reasoning, for a one hundred person company to hire you, you might need five direct reports to be a manager, twenty to be a director, and forty to be a vp.
It's easier to focus on team size than title because the low cost of minting titles drives a fiercely inflationary economy. At Digg, I became a Director of Engineer because the company and my team kept shrinking. Far from a recognition of my success, it was a party favor for participating in one of history's great showcases of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
As managers looking to grow ourseles, what we should really be pursuing is scope: not enumerating people, but taking responsibility for the success of increasingly important and complex facets of the organization and company. This is where advancing your career can veer away from a zero-sum competition to have the largest team and evolve into a virtuous cycle of empowering the organization and taking on more responsibility.
There is a lot less competition for hard work.
Companies will always need someone to run their cost accounting initiatives, to setup their approach to oncall, to iterate on their engineering recruiting process. Strong execution in these cross-cutting projects will give you the same personal and career growth as managing a larger team. Project managing an initiative working with fifty engineering managers is a far better learning opportunity than managing an organization of fifty, and builds the same skills.
This realization was very important and empowering for me: you can always find an opportunity to increase your scope and learning, even in a company that doesn't have room for more directors or vice presidents.
It also changed how I hire engineering managers, allowing me to switch from the pitch of managing a larger team as the companies grows–an oversubscribed dream if there ever was one–to a more meaningful and more reliably attainable dream of growing scope through broad, complex projects.
If you've been focused on growing the size of your team as the gateway to career growth, call bullshit on all that, and look for a gap in your organization or company and try to fill it.
You'll be a lot happier.