CTO vs. VP Engineering

I went for a mountain run yesterday with a long time friend of mine.  In between panting, we spent about a half an hour discussing the differences between a CTO and a VP Engineering.  There are a lot of different definitions that vary by size of company, style of the CEO (technical CEO vs. sales-oriented CEO), geography, and the founders (are any of them either the CTO or VP Eng) – after we got into the conversation we decided to focus on what it meant in a startup.

As we went through a number of examples from companies I had been involved in, a few consistent themes emerged.  The biggest was that one person could play the role of both CTO and VP Eng until a company got up to around 20 people.  Once an organization has more than 20 people, there needed to be a separate CTO and VP Eng.  In cases where there was only one person trying to do both roles, there were three cases:

  • He was ineffective at both
  • He defaulted into the VP Eng role
  • He consciously chose the VP Eng role and left the CTO role to the technical CEO (this only worked when there was a technical CEO)

When I thought about which was easier to hire at 20 people, it’s clear that the VP Eng is a much easier hire to find and integrate into the business.  So – the natural default of the early CTO into the VP Eng role wasn’t very satisfying.

This led us to the definition of CTO and VP Eng that I was working with.  I started with VP Eng and thought of some of the great ones I’ve worked with.  They are process / management gods (and goddesses) – totally focused on building and shipping products.  Most of them are “medium technical” – strong enough to stand up to the engineers they manage, but not necessarily the best coders on the team.  A few were rock star developers; a few were non-programmers (although I think that’s more like me saying I can’t program – where the key word that is missing is “anymore” which implies I could if I didn’t have other things to do.)

In contrast, the great CTO’s usually can’t manage their way out of a paper bag, but have huge vision, the ability to pull an all-nighter and crank out a rough prototype of the thing they are thinking about, have the unique ability to translate complex / abstract thoughts into simple English that a non-technical end-user can understand, and a willingness (or even desire) to get up in front of 1,000 people and talk about the latest greatest thing they are working on / thinking about.  They are also perfectly happy to work collaboratively with the VP Eng while leaving the engineering team completely alone.

Now – all of this is from the frame of reference of a startup or emerging company.  My experience with the Feld Group (prior to the EDS acquisition) helped me understand this from a Fortune 1000 perspective, which is a radically different one that often includes multiple CTOs and VP Engs in an organization along with things called CDOs (Chief Development Officers), CPOs (Chief Product Officers), and CA’s (Chief Architects.)  I never managed to find an R2D2 or a C3PO however.

  • http://www.falseprecision.com Todd Vernon

    Brad, you got going on a post I have been meaning to make for a while. Thanks, great insight..

    http://falseprecision.typepad.com/my_weblog/2007/10/cto-vs-vp-engin.html

    -t

  • http://www.adaptiveblue.com Alex Iskold

    I completely agree with this, same in my experience.

    Another side of this though… Will we even need teams of 20 developers ever again? I am blogging about this very thing on R/WW this week :)

    Alex

  • Daemon

    Excellent analysis!

  • Eric Richard

    Great post.

    I’ve walked both sides of this line (VP and CTO) and, after much haranguing decided that what I enjoy and what I am good at is the VP role. While I am not sure I “suck” at the CTO role, it definitely is not what I enjoy and I think there are lots of other people who are great at it where I will never be.

    For me, it comes down to what do you love.

    I think of a CTO as a visionary and a technologist. A CTO is someone who can see the future. They love riding the wave of technology imagining where it is going and helping to create the future. They are into what is “cool” and on the leading edge. They likely are into nifty “gadgets” because they are always trying to imagine “what might be”. They are looking 3-5 years out. This is where they thrive.

    In contrast, as a VP, I am far more pragmatic than that. I can’t see more than 18 months out (and even that is a really, really long time.) Technology is a tool to me — I very rarely am trying to find problems I can solve with it. I don’t do “cool”. Instead, I have a problem in my hand and go out to find a technology that I can use. I live very much in the here and now, trying to figure out how to move as quickly and efficiently as possible.

    I couldn’t agree more that you really need both roles. Your CTO is your visionary charting the course through unexplored lands whereas your VP is the one who makes sure the boat keeps on sailing as effectively as possible.

    I think that making a CTO do the VPs job or making a VP do the CTOs job is asking for trouble since they will likely neither do it well nor will they enjoy it.

    -Eric

  • Ex-CTO

    I was a CTO until today. I excelled on gathering ideas for the future of the product, and could whip out prototypes whether they required kernel hacking or some web interface (deep roots in development here). But I was also involved with day to day coding of the product and managing the development team (including project management).

    If I could do it all again, I’d like to strictly focus on handling the vision for the future, and prototyping next generation projects, leaving the day to day management to project managers and a VP engineering. Of course, I was a technical CTO, while other CTOs can’t code their way out of paper bag but excel at management.

  • Alex Yim

    Wow, thanks for writing this. I just wondered about this today and searched for this exact topic on Google.

  • http://theconvergingnetwork.com Mitchell Ashley

    Brad, great post. It inspired me to jot down some thoughts about what I think the respective roles are, and reflect on the things I’ve learned in both roles.

    http://mitchellashley.typepad.com/the_converging_network/2007/10/cto-and-vp-engi.html

  • name

    So, in the company of 20 that hires both, who reports to who? Or, do both report to the CEO / President?

  • http://www.microsoftstartupzone.com Kris Olson

    Brad, your post on CTO vs. VP Eng rings true from my experience in several startups. Thought it would be helpful for those starting up, so posted it on the Microsoft Emerging Business Team site, microsoft startup zone. thanks! Kris Olson

  • Dave Skinner

    Totally agree with you, Brad. Thanks for writing this. There does seem to be a magic 20-person threshold where separation of roles is needed.

    I've consulted with a number of companies that don't understand both roles, the differences between them or the contribution each makes to the success of the company. Agree that hiring a VP Eng is easier than a CTO when a company reaches that stage.

    Also have worked as a VP Eng and a CTO on a number of occasions, enjoy both but don't enjoy the cross-over pressure that comes when the roles aren't understood … CTO managing the eng team or Eng VP doing CTO work.

    Thanks again! Great blog, too.