Engineering Managers’ Titles

Lots of companies (especially startups) attract candidates with impressive-sounding titles that don’t match the job they offer. For instance, they might advertise for a CTO or VP to lead a team of just 10–15 engineers. They might also want a manager who still spends half their time writing code. ’s limited to management positions. The same happens for individual contributors. For instance, hiring a software engineer with only three years of experience and calling them a senior engineer wouldn’t make sense. There are lots of other examples, too.

Employers can easily manipulate job titles since they don’t cost anything. However, titles generally have some meaning in the industry, based on the job’s function. For instance, senior engineers are expected to complete complicated projects independently. Engineering managers or team lead managers (sometimes called team leads) are responsible for building and leading a team of 6 to 16 engineers. Directors usually lead a handful of teams managing managers, while VPs manage bigger organizations based on lines of business or domain. CTOs manage technology organizations.

An engineer’s ability to solve problems on their own determines their true title. For managers, the number of people they lead is the main indicator (with a few exceptions, but usually this is the case).

Let me clarify: I’m not saying that the number of direct reports is the most crucial factor. However, in practice, it often determines the scope of the manager’s responsibilities. Managing a team of 8, 25, 50, or 150 people requires completely different skills and experience. The expectations from the managers are different. And the challenges managers face are different as well.

I’ll share my thoughts about individual contributors’ titles in later posts, but for managers, here’s the title mapping that I prefer:

  • It is a Team Lead or Staff Engineer position if a significant hands-on coding contribution is expected and/or required (30%+).
  • It is an Engineering Manager or Team Lead position to manage less than 20 people (1 or 2 teams).
  • It is an Engineering Director position to manage from 20 to 50 engineers (3–6 teams).
  • It is a VP of Engineering position to manage 50+ engineers (6+ teams), but not the whole technology organization.
  • It is a CTO position to manage the whole technology organization. In this case, the number of reports is not as important as the scope of responsibilities. At the same time, real CTO-level *people-management* work starts at the scale of approximately 100+ reports.

In bigger companies, Directors, VPs, and CTOs can manage more people. The figures I provided are what I believe are enablers of the level’s real challenges.
That’s my view. Do you agree? Let me know in the comments.

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