Why your product market fit (or lack of) makes your VP Engineering have impostor syndrome
In a company without product market fit, VPs of Engineering (and often, Product!) struggle with their jobs more than other VPs.
A lot of VPs of Engineering in startups and scaleups struggle to see the value they add to the business.
I think that the key reason for this is because (especially) first time VPs of Engineering struggle with ambiguity.
Here’s how ambiguity starts to manifest for them when they transition into a leadership role:
✓ If you are an IC (individual contributor) even in a company without product market fit, you still have a list of deliverables, a framework within which you work.
✓ Then you’re promoted to VPE, there’s often no framework — because this hasn’t been created yet, because this job is new in this company.
✓ There’s no framework also because the closer you get to the C Suite, the less defined things are… in fact you have the privilege (or the burden!) of creating and defining things from scratch!
✓ A lot of engineers who transitioned to VPE struggle with this as they expect structures to be already there.
✓ In a company that hasn’t yet achieved product-market fit, it can be difficult to set clear metrics and goals that will guide your own or your team’s efforts
✓ Without clear metrics, it’s hard to determine what success looks like or measure progress towards achieving it.
✓ This often leads to frustration and confusion for you as a VP and also for your teams, which can ultimately impact morale and productivity.
✓ Moreover your own leader (the CEO, or CTO usually) doesn’t give you detailed feedback on the impact of your work (like you might have been used to when receiving feedback on your code when you were an engineer).
✓ Most engineers who become VPs struggle with this lack of precision
✓ Therefore the engineer’s mindset shift from IC (individual contributor) to SC (strategic contributor) is not just around strategy and operations — it’s also around shifting from seeking precision to adapting and negotiating ambiguous things and moving targets.
✓ Now that you are a leader, it’s important to acknowledge the ambiguity and work to create a shared understanding of what success looks like, even if it’s not yet fully defined.
✓ It’s also important to be adaptable and willing to pivot strategies as needed, as the company navigates its way towards product-market fit.
If you’re a first-time VP of Engineering, my advice would be to embrace the ambiguity and use it as an opportunity to collaborate with other stakeholders in the company, such as the product and sales teams.
By working together to define and refine goals, you can create a shared sense of purpose and a roadmap for success, even in uncertain times.
How would you deal with the ambiguity of leadership?