Being stuck in “engineering limbo”

the person wasn’t ready to be promoted into this type of role, and from engineer to VPE/CTO is a huge jump

“I see people promoted as a first time VP/CTO type role. Then they leave and struggle to find a new role: it’s hard to find a new senior/leadership role, but also people think they can’t be a developer anymore either so they struggle to find even a permanent senior dev/tech lead type role, and they end up contracting to make ends meet and get stuck there.
Do you have any wise words on that sort of topic?”

This is another topic sent in by my audience.

I call this: “being stuck in engineering limbo”.


WHY this happens:

✓ the person wasn’t ready to be promoted into this type of role, and from engineer to VPE/CTO is a huge jump
(one common pattern I’ve seen happen is: the original CTO is kicked out and they promote the next most experienced engineer or the company grows so fast, that one of the Lead Devs is promoted to VP Engineering, under the existing CTO)

✓ the engineer didn’t know how to manage upwards and ask for what they need — i.e. either an advisor (someone like me — who helps them become business focused and strategic) or a fractional CTO to learn from (someone like Marc van Neerven , Joel Chippindale, Oshri Cohen, Mark van Harmelen et al — who literally does the role of CTO one day a week for several months and shows them the ropes, helps set the company back on track and then hands the reigns to the company and the Startup CTO) — the type of help they need depends on:

∆ the stage of growth

∆ size of engineering and its importance to the core product/market of the business

∆ current processes in place, the state of engineering performance when the promotion happens, current leadership skills of the engineer, etc

✓ I find that engineers in CTO/VPE roles who request an advisor as part of their promotion (or at least 15 months later when they realise they’re out of their depth), succeed IF they didn’t go too far into the role without asking for help and if they naturally have some good interpersonal, communication and leadership skills.

WHAT can you do about it?

✓ ask for an advisor as part of your promotion

✓ explain to your leadership that jumping from engineer to VP or CTO is a huge jump and you need help to become strategic and address the business needs

✓ start asking for regular meetings with the C Suite and build relationships across the organisation NOW — learn what they dislike about the current engineering performance.


If this is too late and you’ve already been either kicked off or jumped ship because you couldn’t bear it any more and you’re in engineering limbo:

✓ gain self awareness by analysing what you liked, what you were good at in both roles and where you’d like to go next (we can help if needed)

✓ then put effort into either one or the other — don’t let your ego dictate that you can’t be an engineer again.

What would you do if stuck in engineering limbo?




Adelina Chalmers a.k.a The Geek Whisperer

Helps Engineers who are Leaders (CEO/ CTO/ VP) get buy-in from their peers/teams/investors by transforming Communication techniques into Algorithms