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.