I’ve worked in quite a few startups where during the early days of the company our small teams shared quite a few responsibilities. During crunch time everyone pitched in to either build, test, demo or sell the product. After gaining traction, some funding and a few customers the teams invariably grew and with growth came the realization that team roles and job responsibilities needed to be more clearly defined. It was never an easy task.
One of the problems we encountered over and over again was defining exactly what a Chief Technology Officer, or CTO, was and how that differed from a Vice President of Engineering. At the highest level the CTO is chartered with defining the technology vision of the company. The VP of Engineering is tasked with building and managing the team that can execution the CTO’s vision.
At his or her core, the VP of Engineering is a manager. They are responsible for devising the engineering team structure, have the ability to recruit, know how to build a team that scales and imparts on that team the necessary discipline to get the job done. The ideal VP of engineering is an engineer with a firm grasp of software engineering methods and project management techniques. It is this individuals responsibility to make sure that the job is also done right.
The CTO is a strong technologist capable of looking at the product or service at a higher level of abstraction. The CTO is an architect while the VP of Engineering is the crew foreman. The CTO is a renaissance person, probably more of a high level thinker when compared to the engineering team. The CTO not only owns the vision but is capable of communicating that vision to partners, investors and customers. The CTO is often the product or service spokeperson.
Building technology products is a team sport and more often than not the VP of Engineering and CTO can be thought of as co-captains. They must work together and complement each other. Both should report directly to the COO, although I’ve seen org charts that had the VP of Engineering reporting to the CTO.
More often than not the CTO will be a founder or cofounder of the company. Initially, technology startups are driven by the technologists and ultimately it’s one of the cofounder’s roles to step up and assume CTO responsibilities. One of the first jobs that the COO and CTO perform together is choosing or recruiting the VP of Engineering.