IT career roadmap: Vice president of engineering

Are you ready to take your software engineering career to the next level? Here's how one VP of engineering built his career from the ground up.

How to become a VP of engineering

A vice president of engineering is an executive who manages an organization’s development teams, among other engineering-related functions.

These executives are responsible for ensuring that design requirements are met, overseeing the consistency of user experiences, and managing a team of engineers and developers, according to the CTO Academy, a provider of career services for technology executives.

The average vice president of engineering salary in the United States was $271,673 as of August 2022, but the range typically falls between $239,343 and $311,153, according to Salary.com. Salary ranges can vary widely depending on factors including education, certifications, additional skills, and the number of years spent in the profession, the firm says.

To find out what’s involved in becoming a vice president of engineering, I spoke with Brett Carter, vice president of engineering at ThreeFlow, a provider of insurance software.

A love of building software

Carter attended Willamette University, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science. He originally intended to major in physics but after taking an introductory programming course became intrigued with computer science. “I’ve always enjoyed building things and programming gives you so much ability to build,” he says. “I was one of seven graduating computer science students in my class; it was an odd major at the time.”

brett carter threeflow IDG

Brett Carter is VP of engineering for ThreeFlow.

A lucky break had come some years earlier when Carter won an internship at Intel during his senior year of high school. “While I didn’t really do much programming at that job—it was hardware testing and validation—I was fascinated by the scale and vision of the company,” he says. “It felt like I belonged to something really important and that I had the opportunity to make a huge impact in the world.”

Carter didn’t see himself as an executive or even a manager early in his career. “I just enjoyed building software so much it was hard to think about anything else,” he says.

From startups to scale

After graduating, Carter worked for a series of startup companies as a software engineer before landing a managerial position at Janrain, a company that provides a software-as-a-service user management platform, in 2011.

At Janrain, he led a team of five people working on the core configuration service for the company's product. “It was the first company I worked for that was venture-backed,” Carter says. “I was heading up a new [marketing technology] product team which was full of awesome developers. It was a ton of work but we built something really incredible for the time and I’ll never forget that experience and team.”

After this position, Carter wanted a new opportunity, particular something “with a ton of scale,’ he says. He went to work for AppNexus, now Xandr, which provides a platform for advertising campaigns for digital and television.

“AppNexus was opening a new office in my town and looking for a manager for their API team for the publisher-side business,” Carter says. “It was unlike any company I’d ever worked for—such a strong culture of responsibility and teamwork. We ran something like 10,000 servers and handled well over a million requests a second, a scale I’d never seen before.”

Seeking new skills and challenges

Carter had to learn new skills while at AppNexus. “As we gained our first enterprise client one of their [vice presidents] asked me to take over the entire API platform, whose performance was key to closing this big enterprise deal,” he says. “I remember sitting on a video conference with a bunch of executives from this client who were extremely unhappy with our API’s stability and performance.”

The CTO had Carter fly out to the customer’s site and present a plan for how to meet the client's needs. “It was a pretty stressful time, but with an amazing team and a little luck we went from several incidents per week to zero by the end of the quarter,” he says. “That plus a bunch of other hard work led to me being promoted to one of the first director roles at the company, where I oversaw a bunch of different teams."

Eventually, Carter longed to return to a startup company. “I really wanted to own the growth story and get the opportunity to sit on an executive team,” he says. After searching the market he joined ThreeFlow.

“I’m really excited by the product I get to build with my team at ThreeFlow and how we are empowering employee benefits brokers and carriers,” Carter says. “It’s awesome to see how the technical pieces my team builds ultimately [connect] people, systems, and information to build easier communication, processes, and benefit decisions.”

A memorable career moment

“My team built a product that was used for American Idol’s website,” Carter says. “I remember spending an entire season of the show watching our application metrics at every commercial break and seeing these huge spikes of traffic. Our app never crashed.”

In addition, Carter recalls a time when there was a huge, monolithic API codebase that nobody wanted to touch. “Everybody, including the CTO, thought we should throw it out and rewrite it,” he says. “I knew that would be a massive effort and hugely disruptive to the company. I formed a five-person team and we put one quarter of effort into fixing it and by the end it was super stable and way more accessible to contribute to. Our chief architect told me he was mad that we had done such a good job, since it meant it would never be rewritten.”

Career advice

When asked about the best career or life advice he has received, Carter says, “Be the CEO of your own career ... I remember waiting around for the next step in my career. You have to set goals and go after them.” For others seeking a similar career path to his own, he suggests finding mentors. "Some of the best mentors I’ve had are actually people with the same or similar role to me in a different company,” he says. “I wish I’d found those people sooner and earlier in my career. They really helped me think through decisions or navigate difficult situations—if only by listening to me.”

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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