A director of engineering is responsible for keeping an entire engineering function humming. Find out what skills you need to climb the ladder to this vital position.
A director of engineering is an individual who can be trusted to draw upon their experience to help align an entire software engineering function with the operational and strategic goals of their organization.
Most will have ascended to the position because of their engineering, operational, and management experience. In large organizations, it can be something of a middle management position, but in practice, it’s an absolutely vital role for coordinating engineering efforts.
Director of engineering job description
A director of engineering is ultimately responsible for the work of all of the engineering staff that fall under their purview. They must ensure that their teams are aligned, have what they need to do their jobs effectively, and that projects are moving along on schedule.
They also work with other departments within the company on strategic or operational initiatives, serving as the voice of engineering in meetings that can range from product development, to budget negotiations. Those meetings might be with peer managers or with members of the C-suite. They participate or take the lead in much of the baseline work needed to keep their department afloat, including hiring, budgeting, compliance, and developing policies, procedures, and best practices.
What does a director of engineering do? Roles and responsibilities
That’s the job description, but how does it work in practice? What’s a director of engineering’s job like day to day?
First thing’s first: jobs with the same title can vary widely from company to company, or even across groups within the same company – we’ll get into the details of this, and why they’re important for the director of engineering job, in a moment. That being said, there are a couple of near-universal responsibilities for a director.
A director of engineering is a manager of managers. Generally speaking, the director of engineering is responsible for coordinating various engineering managers and their teams with one another and the wider organization. The director of engineering is thus two steps removed from individual contributors, and rarely, if ever, actually gets their hands dirty with frontline engineering work, though their engineering background needs to inform their decisions.
A director of engineering is very concerned with operational matters. The CTO and other upper management sets the overall strategy for the engineering department and the company as a whole. An engineering manager leads their team into the granular details of solving engineering problems, which falls into the realm of tactics. A director of engineering then falls between the two, implementing operational decisions.
Operations are very concerned with the question of how. A director of engineering must make sure their teams have the resources they need to implement the company strategy. This includes adequate tech infrastructure, sufficient budget, and proper staffing.
A director of engineering could therefore be responsible for setting overarching Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) for their direct reports and their teams, maintaining and reporting on key engineering metrics, ensuring there is good velocity across engineering teams, unblocking obstacles, ensuring the quality of their output is high, and other operational concerns. Some directors may also weigh in on high level architectural decisions, or whether to build or buy a piece of technology.
They may also be tasked with explaining to other teams within the company how engineering can help with overall corporate goals: what support they can offer sales or marketing, or what products or services they’re capable of rolling out to meet those mandated objectives.
That last part may sound like it’s bleeding a little into the realm of strategy. It’s true that the lines between these realms aren’t always clear. More to the point, the degree to which a director of engineering gets to (or has to) participate in these kinds of higher-level decisions depends a lot on the size and structure of their organization and their level of influence.
Director of engineering vs VP of engineering: What's the difference?
You’ll find some sources assuring you that the job of Vice President of Engineering is wholly distinct from that of Director of Engineering. Others insist that a VP is just a director of engineering with a fancier job title and a bigger paycheck. The reality lies somewhere in between, and often depends on the size of the organization involved, as well as where it is along its development from lean startup to large enterprise.
At smaller companies, with smaller engineering departments, the director of engineering – sometimes given the title of head of engineering – fulfills the manager of managers role we described above, but also acts as a more strategic planner as well, and interacts directly with corporate leadership, carrying out many of the duties normally associated with a VP of engineering. Directors of engineering working at companies in this stage of their evolution may end up having their title boosted to VP to acknowledge expanded duties and leadership roles they take on, even if their position on the org chart doesn’t really change.
Eventually, most companies grow large enough that this dual role becomes untenable, and VPs will eventually have a director of engineering filling in the middle management role below them, focusing on more operational matters. In fact, there may be multiple directors of engineering in that layer of management, which is another thing to keep in mind: in a truly large company, directors of engineering may proliferate. An individual director may be in charge of a particular area of technological focus (such as security or platform), or may be in charge of the engineering teams responsible for a particular product offering.
How do you become a director of engineering?
A director of engineering is a step up the ladder into greater management responsibilities. Taking on leadership duties while working as an engineer at a small company is one route into the position, but a more typical route would be to gain leadership experience as a lead engineer and then take on more management responsibilities as an engineering manager before applying for a director of engineering role. But keep in mind the differing company scales we discussed above: it may be that a VP or head of engineering role at a small company is the logical stepping stone to a director of engineering job at a larger one.
Director of engineering résumé tips
At any rate, you’ll want to make sure your résumé reflects the necessary skills for the job, including:
- The ability to direct cross-functional teams (that include people beyond engineering) to achieve their goals.
- Written and verbal communication skills.
- The ability to interpret data and metrics and apply the knowledge you extract from it.
- Skills integral for running an organization: budgeting, hiring, setting OKRs.
- Familiarity with popular engineering and management methodologies relevant to your discipline.
- Leadership capabilities, including hiring and promoting the right people, making tough decisions, and inspiring and mentoring your reports and colleagues.
The old adage of show, don’t tell is important here; you’ll want to come up with ways to truthfully frame your work experience in ways that show your experience or at least your potential in all of these areas. And you’ll want to come up with hard data that supports your assertion: how much money you saved, how many users you supported, and so on.
While you won’t be doing much day-to-day engineering work in your new role, you’ll need to deeply understand technology to do the job right, and you'll need to be up to date with the state of the art even if you’ve been in management for years. Otherwise, the engineers working under you won’t respect your leadership.
This isn’t a job where a consultant with no area knowledge can step into the role on the strength of an MBA. If you’re going to go for a master’s degree, one in a relevant engineering field would help you stand out, although generally a bachelor’s and relevant industry experience are all that’s required.
Director of engineering interview questions
If your résumé passes muster, you’ll move onto the interview stage. Because a director of engineering is a high-level position, don’t be surprised if you face several rounds of interviews with leaders of different teams, especially at larger companies.
Potential interview questions you might face include:
- What tools do you use to manage your team effectively? This is your chance to talk about the nuts and bolts of your management practice.
- What do you consider your biggest professional failure to date? Everyone wants to talk about success, but how you deal with setbacks reveals a lot about character.
- Based on your previous experience, what excites you the most about this job opportunity? Remember, you’re not just boasting about your skills; you also have to explain how you'll fit into this new role – and that means showing that you understand what that role is and why you want to fill it.
- What are some of the most important qualities that an engineer should have? You’ll need to be able to explain how your philosophy of engineering will shape your team.
- How do you stay up-to-date with the latest developments in engineering? Remember, you’ve got to keep the “engineer” in “director of engineering,” and your new employers need to know that you won’t lose touch with the industry’s pulse.
- What is your process for evaluating new technologies and deciding whether or not to implement them? This question follows on from the previous one, showing how you synthesize your knowledge of technology with your understanding of your organization’s needs and strategies.
Director of engineering salary expectations
Engineering directors are generally well compensated, though as always you can expect a wide range of salaries depending on experience, industry, and geographic location. Pulling from some publicly available sources, here’s what you can expect in terms of pay:
- According to Glassdoor, in the United States, the average compensation for a director of engineering is around $248,000, with around $156,00 of that being base salary and the rest additional pay in the form of bonuses, stock grants, and so on. That average is part of a typical range that can go from $192,000 on the lower end to $326,000 on the high end.
- In the United Kingdom, compensation is lower. According to Glassdoor: the median pay is around £130,000, in a band that ranges from £96,000 to £182,000.
- In Germany, Glassdoor pegs the average there at €144,000, with an expected band ranging from €102,000 to €168,000.
- If you’re looking for engineering manager work down under, the average pay in Australia in this role is A$236,000, according to Glassdoor. That can dip as low as A$203,000 and go up to A$251,000.
- If you’re interested in an engineering management job in India’s burgeoning tech industry, Glassdoor says you can expect an average pay of around ₹6,500,000, but that’s part of a wide typical range that can run from ₹5,000,000 to ₹9,000,000.
Becoming a director of engineering can be rewarding both financially and in terms of overall job satisfaction. Good luck in making this step up in your career.