I was recently asked whether the common distinction in startups between a CTO and a VP of Engineering is justified or not. My thinking is that for most organizations with less than 200 engineers, this separation isn’t a rule of nature and that you might be better off without it. It’s not needed unless it’s needed. Let’s start with a quick recap.
Why are the roles split?
Going by the book, the story virtually always starts the same way. A new startup is born. One of the co-founders is the technical one, and so she is dubbed CTO. If the company is successful and keeps growing, one of the following happens:
- Let me code: The CTO realizes she’d much rather be typing at the keyboard than do the pesky leadership thing that takes up more of her time as the company grows. At this point, some companies hire a VP Engineering. The CTO keeps her title, even though she is acting as an equivalent of a staff engineer.
- Innovation-targeted: The CTO decides she does not want to (or shouldn’t) be in charge of people management, but still has a crucial executive role. A VPE is hired to take care of that responsibility, and the CTO maintains the responsibility of tech innovation, architecture, or evangelism (i.e., speaking in conferences).
- The non-technical CTO: The CTO slowly shifts to do non-technical work that’s crucial for the company, like product leadership or rainmaking. They often retain their CTO title, though they don’t have anything to do with the tech the company is creating.
One last case, which is not as frequent, is when there are multiple techie founders. Then, a company with no employees is started at day one with a CTO and a VP. *shrug*
What is best for your company?
Advising clients, I recommend having a single tech executive in at least 90% of the cases. When there’s a single person in charge, you reduce communication and politics, increase ownership and accountability, and avoid at least one adverse effect of Conway’s law.
Is it harder for that tech executive to have everything under her umbrella? Not necessarily. In most cases, delivery is intertwined with innovation—the same people should be doing both. Adding another executive role doesn’t solve that, but actually creates needless silos.
Is your company filing to go public, and the executive needs more time? Fine. Do you have to retain both titles because otherwise, it will result in one of the founders leaving? Alright. Do what you have to do. Nevertheless, keep in mind that this is not a requirement and often not the best option. You have other doors to go through.
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