Choosing The Right Role As Your Company Grows: Engineering Founder

At Lemnos we help our portfolio companies transition from two or three-person founding teams to growing companies with strong functional capabilities and process. Two of the most important responsibilities an engineering founder has are hiring and organizational development. You spend countless hours trying to figure out the when, why, and how of growing your team. But have you spent enough time deciding what role you will ultimately perform as your company matures?


This decision comes more quickly than you expect. As your startup transitions from prototype to principal engineering, your engineering team (both internal resources and external partners) grows quickly. Your ability to simultaneously code, organize, strategize, and manage by yourself quickly falters. In the beginning you hire more engineers, but eventually hiring engineers no longer solves the problem.


When this happens, you need to reorganize your team. Traditionally, engineering founders transition into the role of VP of Engineering during this process, but with more a more strategic eye, there are multiple exciting roles for you that can help your startup succeed.


The Train Station Analogy

At Palm, I learned to organize engineering through the analogy of a train station. One person needs to think about the big picture: after watching all trains passing through the station over a long period, they must determine how the trains best flow for the maximum benefit to customers and the train station. A few individuals are responsible for organizing and managing individual trains that are composed of multiple boxcars. And multiple folks are responsible for the boxcars themselves.


Your train station manager is the VP of Engineering, looking forward to the technology and products your company will need to be successful. Engineering Program Managers (EPMs) own one train, organizing and leading a single product. And Leads organize individual boxcars that, when connected with other cars, create a product(s).


There are More Options

In the early days, you probably did all of these tasks. But when they become too much for one person to manage, what role will you ultimately take on? In the train station analogy you may be drawn to becoming the VP of Engineering, but we suggest you look at all your options:

  • VP of Engineering: Are you best at organizational development, people and resource management, and keeping your eye on the big picture?
    While the title of VP of Engineering is appealing, it is hard work that pulls you away from day-to-day technical development. This role is about management, leadership, and ultimately being responsible for the non-engineering decisions that make an engineering team successful. 
  • CTO: Are you best at envisioning technologies that will significantly differentiate your future product and turn that vision into a viable product?
    In the train station analogy, someone’s job is to look into the future and build the new engines and boxes that future trains will need to be successful. CTOs look into the future, searching for technologies and processes to eliminate an organization’s technical debt or widen its technology lead. They are asynchronous when the rest of the engineering teams’ goal is to stay on schedule. 
  • Head of Product: Have you demonstrated proficiency at marketing, finance, and engineering leadership?
    Also referred to a GM (General Manager), this is the rarest individual who thrives at the intersection of business and engineering, who can guide the P&L (profit and loss), own the go-to-market strategy, and lead the engineering effort that responds to customers’ needs. 
  • Individual Contributor or Team Lead: Do you love the arc of technical coding and the process of creation?Management takes you away from creating product—a fact that many engineers later lament when they transition to management. If you don’t enjoy spending much of your time managing others, continue down the development path. Create the core technology that differentiates your company.


Always a Founder

This decision is uniquely personal and requires a great level of honesty and self-awareness. Each option is a wonderful opportunity. The right choice is the one that brings you the most personal satisfaction and the maximum value to your company. The only wrong answer is avoiding the decision as your team grows.


You will always be a founder, but there comes a time when the best thing you can do as a founder is to hire yourself out of things you once had to do and into something you love and excel at!