4 mins

Ahead of her talk at LeadingEng West Coast in October, Honeycomb’s Emily Nakashima demystifies the vice president of engineering role.

What do they do all day up there? It’s something many have asked themselves about senior executives at various stages of their careers. In engineering circles, the vice president (VP) role is not without its ambiguities, presenting a varied set of responsibilities and considerations.

Ahead of her talk on the topic at LeadingEng West Coast later this year, Scott Carey (SC) checked in with Emily Nakashima (EM), VP of engineering at Honeycomb, to dig into the intricacies of the role.

The below conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. Emily’s full talk will be delivered at LeadingEng West Coast on October 18 in Oakland, California.

SC: We’re looking forward to welcoming you at our LeadingEng event in Oakland later this year. What will you be talking about?

EM: I'll be speaking about the VP of engineering role and, in particular, the various archetypes you typically see from company to company.

I’ll also discuss how to build your skillset if you’re looking to enter the VP role, expanding on some of the critical capabilities the position calls for which aren’t as prevalent in other leadership positions, such as strategy and managing managers.

SC: Does the VP role change depending on the company size?

EM: The role can definitely vary depending on the company's stage. If you’re a smaller startup, a VP could be doing a bit of everything, like jumping in and helping out with incidents, running the recruiting process end-to-end, or even ordering snacks and putting them in the kitchen. 

As the company gets bigger, I think the role narrows quite a lot. Often, this means focusing a lot more on strategy. In this case, working with talent and hiring will still be your responsibility, but the recruiting team will be more integral and you will have a much smaller hand in the process. 

Additionally, I think that the role can change according to who else is at the company, for instance, the type of shape your CTO takes, or your most senior individual contributors (ICs). 

SC: What's one of the biggest lessons you've learned about being a VP of engineering?

EM: To me, the thing that didn't seem obvious going in was how much work it takes to ensure your team has visibility of your work. There's so much curiosity about what you're working on and how it impacts the day-to-day priorities of the company. And, you can either actively work to illuminate your team on that, or it can be completely hidden behind closed doors. 

To help your team stay aligned, I think it's really important to give them some of that transparency, which I’ll expand upon in my talk as well. 

SC: What's one thing that you hope the audience can take away from your talk?

EM: I want to encourage people to consider whether this might be the role for them down the road. Before I started talking to Honeycomb’s CTO and co-founder Charity Majors about potentially stepping into this role, I'd never considered it for myself, even though I had been in management for a while. 

I think that's true for a lot of folks unless they have a sponsor or mentor that really pushes them toward it. I want to demystify it and give more folks a chance to think about whether it might be a fit for them, as I think the role would really benefit from a wider range of perspectives and backgrounds.

SC: Why is it that you wanted to share this story with the LeadingEng audience? 

EM: One of the wonderful things about LeadingEng is that there is such an incredible range of leadership roles in the audience. 

Understanding the VP of engineering role is really important for leaders at every level, whether you're a CTO who is paired up with a VP of engineering day-to-day, or an engineering manager who has to work with someone in this position. 

Though many of the people in the audience might collaborate with this role, there's still a lot of unawareness of its pressures or inner workings. I think it'll be really valuable to open up the conversation about how all these pieces of the leadership team fit together.