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CEO Journal

Leading with Insight: A Guide to Becoming an Effective VP of R&D

Anat Rapoport

When you’re looking to become a VP of R&D, one of the most important ways to prepare for the role is to know who you are as a person and as a manager. You also need a certain level of maturity. You need to be proactive, to not take things personally, to work less with ego, to not get offended, and to be confident. Simply put, you need to have your shit together.

 Depending on your situation, you might be promoted or hired externally to this position. Often, you’ll be a director at a larger company and then hired on as a VP of R&D at a smaller startup. This is the route I took.

 Landing the Job       

The interview process for a VP position is far less technical than any previous roles you’ve been hired for. It feels more like a date: you’re sharing your success stories, how you approach being the VP of R&D, and if you fit, they’ll take you. It’s a much more personal process, focused on attitude, management skills, style, and chemistry.

 Everything that you have experienced and handled in lower management positions so far, is still relevant; you’ll still be implementing one-on-ones, planning timelines, and considering company strategy.  However, you will be executing these tasks on a much larger scale and from a much higher, broader point of view.

 The View from the Top                                                       

Along with scope, the main difference from your previous management positions is that, as VP of R&D, you are now 100 percent alone in your decision-making. You are responsible for scale and processes, structure and restructure, relationship with product, and the quality of the production. It’s all on you. As a result, you need to have a much clearer understanding of the organization as a whole, the business your company is in, and the product you are working on.

 You need to be able to solve more complicated problems, understand different structures for your group, and implement the right one for the purposes of your organization. You are also solely responsible for reflecting the needs of development to the CEO and the others at the C-suite level.                

 This all might sound intimidating, but if you have come so far, I am sure you are up for the challenge. And I am not alone; someone believed in you and promoted you or recruited you for this VP position. Take a deep breath and “woman up.” You can do this!

 Let’s dive into some of your new responsibilities. 

 Understand the Company Structure                                                                      

One of the biggest differences from your previous roles is that now you are expected to understand the big picture of the organization at all levels. You need to thoroughly understand customer needs, sales and desired outcome. This does not mean managing the other departments, which you shouldn’t try to do. Rather, you’re seeing how R&D fits into the bigger picture.                        

You might be hired as a VP in one of two types of businesses: a newer startup or a large established organization.                          

 Often, startups have two founders. The more business-oriented founder often becomes the CEO, while the more technological founder becomes the CTO. In some cases, the CTO will have good-enough management skills and manage R&D successfully, no matter the engineering group size. In my experience, however, when the engineering team hits around seven people, the startup needs someone with more than good-enough skills. They need someone who knows how to run processes like Agile and sprints, who knows product definitions, and who knows how to plan for clear deliverables. At the beginning of a startup, the focus is on getting things done quick and dirty, doing whatever is needed, and meeting small sales demands. It’s inevitably messy, which isn’t bad, but at some point, order needs to come. Around this time, the founders will consider bringing on a VP of R&D.

 Depending on the startup, you’ll report to the CTO or the CEO. I prefer reporting to the CEO because I want to bring my own voice and management style to the role. In addition, if you report to the CTO, you aren’t necessarily included on the management team and thus have a position that is lower than the rest of the VPs. In my opinion, reporting to the CTO is only worthwhile if you want to be more hidden, or if you want someone to have your back and pave the way for you. If you prefer this more discreet role, you might not be ready to be a VP.                   

 If you are hired as VP of R&D at a large company, it’s likely for one of two reasons: either you are replacing a former VP, or the company is expanding the organizational structure and creating a new VP position.

 Be Prepared to Solve Problems

Whether you’re hired by a startup or an established organization, you’re often recruited because problems need to be solved. I’ve never heard of someone entering a VP position to discover nothing but smooth sailing and well-managed employees. Instead, you’ll likely end up finding instances of poor management, inefficient processes, or a lack of personal responsibility. Solving these problems is part of your job as VP of R&D, so expect it from the beginning. 

 Understand the Company Needs                

When you’re hired, you’ll need to learn the product, as well as the problems relevant to the product. Start by observing. Watch everything. Question everything in order to understand the company. Ask people what is or isn’t working. This, again, depends on the size of the company, but I recommend interviewing as many people in your department as you can. I’ve worked with groups of around forty people, and I made sure to meet with every one of them. As you talk with more people, you get more perspectives and understand the business better, which will inform your decisions as VP.

 As the VP of R&D, you have to understand the business. Speak with the senior managers of sales, customer success, and product. Understand where the company is headed, the vision for the company, where the company will grow, and how R&D should answer these needs. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of the company.

 As you do this, start to figure out what R&D should prioritize. What can’t be given up on? What can’t be skipped? For example, if you’re a medical startup with software online in the operating room, you can’t have your product fail during surgery. It needs to be available at all times. You need to implement the technology so that it supports this priority. Additionally, your product should be well tested for critical components so it never fails from bugs or problems in the code.

 If your company develops a product that collects data and provides customer insight, your main challenge is handling the scale of your customer’s data. You need to be ready for the next level in case your company signs more customers. For this structure, you don’t need to prioritize 100 percent functioning like you do for a medical product. Instead, you need to focus on monitoring data and knowing the trends of the data amounts.

 Still another scenario would be a product bringing technology into old-fashioned areas such as insurance, law, or food tech. Often, your priority here is creating a usable, pretty straightforward user experience, rather than scale or 100 percent availability.

 As the leader of development, mapping the product and its priorities helps you build and structure your group, production, and goals.

 Understand Development Structures         

In the past, software development was split into different teams for back end, front end, mobile, QA, and database experience. When you needed a feature, teams worked together to execute it across the different areas. This was a difficult and often messy task if the teams worked poorly together. They needed to synchronize all aspects, trying to balance resources to fit every feature.     

In 2012, Spotify introduced the squad model and changed the software engineering world.                      

Under the squad model, teams work independently. Each team implements all parts of a specific feature or area, with people belonging to the squad responsible for product definition, backend, frontend, and any other skill needed to complete the team’s tasks. The squad is 100 percent self-sufficient. This way, teams don’t have to wait for other teams to give them resources.             

 The squad model creates autonomy and independence by letting features be developed inside a team. Additionally, it allows for scaling each engineering group. You can have many steps, processes, and teams that work independently while also communicating with each other, all of which increases innovation, productivity, and accountability. As a result, product quality improves.                  

 When an organization transitions to squads, the culture shifts. The company’s environment becomes less top-down and more collaborative. For example, someone can be a squad lead but not necessarily a team lead, or the squad lead of one group and team lead of a different group. This kind of culture shift is a positive thing, but it can also be difficult. People might have objections or struggle to understand how their new roles fit into the big picture. People need time to adjust to new concepts.

 Companies customize the squad model to fit their own needs and internal goals—from the number of squads, to who leads squads, to the overall structure, and beyond. Depending on the company, they may or may not use team leads within the structure. When this happens, the squad is about features, while team leads help with engineers’ personal development.         

 A prerequisite to implementing the squad model is a modular architecture. If you are working on a monolith, you won’t be able to implement a squad model because teams will step on each other’s toes. However, please also remember that if you have a monolith architecture, it’s advisable to start changing that because of so many reasons, that implementing squads is the least of your problems.                                                                   

 Observe, Then Act

When you get started on your first VP job, don’t jump in right away with grand plans for customer success and sales. First, concentrate on the software development part of your job. Take a couple of months to understand what’s happening and then start making decisions that will move the needle. Focus on low-hanging fruit to get quick wins so others gain trust in your ability to lead. Notice problems, focus on issues that matter, see if the structure the organization uses best serves it, and notice whether or not the company is ready for the next level of scale.

Understand your surroundings with the goal of having an amazing organization under you.    

Written by Anat Rapoport.

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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Journal - Leading with Insight: A Guide to Becoming an Effective VP of R&D
Anat Rapoport
Anat Rapoport has worked her way through every rank in the engineering and technology industries. She has been VP of engineering at multiple companies and was GM and co-CEO in her last two roles. Rapoport is an experienced R&D manager with a master of science in computer science from Tel Aviv University. She is an Israel Defense Forces 8200 alumni, and a mom of three. Her new book is Woman Up!: Your Guide to Success in Engineering and Tech, (Lioncrest Publishing (May 31, 2023).

Anat Rapoport is an Executive Council member at the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn.