The three signs it’s time to hire an engineering leader


Your organization is gaining momentum, and your engineering team is growing. Is it time to bring in an engineering leader? Find out how to recognize the perfect moment to onboard an engineering lead and what characteristics you should look for when hiring.
A successful engineering organization isn’t just a group of talented developers—the team also needs effective leadership to keep moving things forward.
With the right leaders, your organization can get the best out of every team member to accomplish your company’s most important business goals.
But how do you know when to hire an engineering leader? What signs should you look for? And when you are ready to hire, what qualities should you look for in your candidates?
My startup, Jellyfish, focuses on maximizing the business impact of engineering. Data has changed the conversation for so many roles, and software has emerged to empower teams that have never had a seat at the table. Our goal is to do for engineering what Salesforce did for sales, what Marketo did for marketing, and what Workday did for HR. These days, engineering teams are no longer just a group of nerds working in the corner of the room—they add immense value to the business, and they should have an important seat at the table.
Engineering is too important (and too expensive) to ignore. That’s why you must think strategically about how to grow your engineering team and add the right leadership roles as you scale.
Let’s take a closer look at the signs and symptoms you’ll start seeing in your organization when it’s time to onboard an engineering leader and examine the three hiring levels for these key roles.

The three critical levels of engineering leadership

At several different companies, I’ve seen a familiar pattern: At different times, engineering organizations need to bring on different levels of leaders with specific skills.
Here are the three types of engineering leaders you need to be thinking about now:

Level 1 Leader: Architect and Helpful Fixer

When your prototype is still finding its legs, but you don’t yet have what you need to stabilize it, you likely need what I call a “Level 1 Leader.”
The leader you’re looking for at this stage manages the team of engineers directly, but this person also spends their extra hours in the day helping to do things like architecture, fixing the database, and writing tests.
Level 1 engineering leaders are the soul of the team—the person who makes sure the product doesn’t fall apart.
You’ll know you need this type of leader when people are using your product at a greater rate, and suddenly you’re having trouble hiring people to fix breaking things. Symptoms include a lack of focus on creating processes and not enough tests getting run—which leads to things breaking in front of customers. You’ve got a workable prototype, and you’re at the point where people want what you’re offering, but you can’t keep the product stable. You can’t deliver what customers need.
This is the right time to hire a Level 1 engineering manager who can help you build a solid, sane architecture and put testing in place. This engineering leader can not only bring in reliability, but also put guardrails around the work that’s getting done.

Level 2 Leader: Recruiter and Process Creator

You’ll do well with a Level 1 manager until the workload gets heavy enough that your manager runs out of hours in the day.
Here’s the sign you’re looking for at this stage: You ask your Level 1 manager to focus primarily on hiring because you need to build your engineering team, but they’re already maxed out because they’re spending their time building and running tests.
This manager may not realize the shift in growth that has happened because they’re still in the weeds of the business. It’s not that what they’re doing isn’t important—but the right person needs to extricate themselves from that day-to-day work. That’s when you need a Level 2 engineering manager.
This next level of the manager is deeply passionate about processes and recruiting. They recognize that a pivot has happened and that your engineering organization needs to grow and scale.

Level 3 Leader: The Executive

When your engineering team grows to around 40-50 members, and you’re maxing out on management, that’s a sign that you’re ready for a Level 3 manager. A startup is usually around a Series B round of funding when they hit this point.
At this point, your VP might not know exactly what everyone is doing. Your executive leadership team needs to make some difficult decisions about what to do in the day-to-day workflow because they can’t do it all, and there’s too much complexity in the organization to keep tabs on every little thing. A Level 3 engineering manager can help here because they can stay above the fray, maintain a high-level view of the business, and better help the executive team.
Level 3 managers are outside the engineering team a bit more, and they interact more often with the sales and product teams.

Effective engineering leaders can motivate their teams with a shared vision and drive successful projects by working with their teams’ strengths and weaknesses. Great leadership in your engineering team can be the engine that drives productivity growth.
Look for these signs that it’s time to hire engineering leaders:
●  Level 1: You’ve got a workable prototype, and people are using it, but it’s not stable, and you need to put testing in place. Hire an engineering manager who can lead and grow a small team, add reliability, and put guardrails in place.
●  Level 2: Your Level 1 engineering manager is now maxed out on time and doesn’t have time to hire to scale the team because they’re in the weeds of working on the product. In this phase, hire a manager passionate about recruiting and processes.
●  Level 3: Your engineering team has grown to around 40-50 members, and your VP isn’t quite sure what everyone is working on. Hire a manager who can interact with sales and product teams and think strategically about the direction of the engineering team.

Have any ideas or suggestions to improve this article?