As a tech exec advisor, I’ve had the pleasure of working with people with all sorts of titles. The most common tech exec titles include CTO, CIO, VP Engineering, VP R&D, and Head of Engineering. These are a bunch of titles, and if you’re just making your first steps in leadership roles, you might be confused as to what exactly each one means. I’ll one-up that general question and tell you right now that the distinctions are unclear. It is prevalent to see a CTO in one company doing work completely different from another company, and the same goes for all of these titles.
All that goes to say that the title is not material for your role. What’s important is the function you intend to hold in the company. What’s the reason your position is needed? What’s your impact on the organization? As the famed Peter Drucker has taught us, you should ask yourself what it is exactly that you do.
Archetypes of Tech Executives
Here are the common archetypes of jobs I see tech execs performing:
- R&D Execution Officer: Perhaps most straightforward, this person is in charge of the day-to-day operation of R&D. The leader who decides on tasks and roadmaps with the rest of the executives, usually with budgetary responsibility for the division. This is the person sticking our their necks whenever R&D isn’t hitting deadlines.
- Chief Innovation Officer: Sometimes, a unique role is held by a person with a deep understanding of the product or the technology involved. Sometimes in charge of some sort of “labs” department, and sometimes simply acting as a devil’s advocate in every technical discussion to get people to think bigger.
- Chief Architect: An executive who essentially has the top authority when it comes to technical decisions in the company. In charge of maintaining high productivity by ensuring top-of-the-art tools, as well as creating a quality culture that attracts talent (how many top-talent people do you know who’d join a tech-debt death-march?).
- Tech-Product-Sales Enabler: It is very common in startups experiencing rapid growth to have the original tech founder end up as a CTO who’s all but a CTO. The day-to-day varies greatly for this kind of magic job, but it consists of being a catalyst for processes outside of R&D. Sometimes, it means the CTO is heavily involved in sales, as a glorified pre-sales engineer, and someone able to provide detailed feedback to R&D and Product about needed adjustments. Other times I see execs investing their time working closely with Product to iterate quickly. And some CTOs become evangelists, taking on the part of a regular conference speaker to spread the word, and maybe heavily involved in charming top talent to join the company.
I’ve seen the title CTO used to describe each of these. It’s not uncommon to see a Vice President hold one of these responsibilities with a Director (or another VP) in charge of a different aspect. As tech executives, the range of freedom we have acts as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, as you can see from the descriptions above, it means that you have so many different ways to do your best and impact on the company. On the other hand, because of the lack of limitations it is often hard for a new executive to decide what they should be investing their time on.
Furthermore, it is also common for miscommunication to happen when a new executive is being hired. Nontechnical founders might simply use one of the above titles, thinking what it means to them means the same to everyone else, which is false, as we’ve just witnessed. If you are considering such a job (or promotion), you will do good to invest a good chunk of your time validating the expectations everyone has of the role.
What’s the Right Role for You?
First, we will put aside very small startups, where the tech executive tends to do all of the above and probably also grocery runs. Any sizable R&D organization will benefit from someone holding each of the above positions, but it is not likely for your organization to have all of them before reaching a headcount of about 80-100 in my experience.
I do not believe we can move too many things at once, at least not when it comes to bigger-picture initiatives. That’s why you should regularly decide on your big picture goals and consider them under the different responsibilities described above. It might be that what the company needs for the next several months is actually some tech authority to push forward a huge overhaul, and you’re just the right person to do it. However, experience teaches us the power multiplier usually comes from the other roles, which enable a cadre of talented people to be even more effective in their jobs.
Decide what you should be measuring your own successes by, and put in place regular self-reviews (assuming the common case where no one else is going to hold you accountable until it’s too late). As companies mature and grow, it is natural to have to redefine what your focus points are, and excellent tech executives end up reinventing their jobs every 9-18 months. Keep in mind, though, that these growth stages often mean you should also grow your organization in lockstep.
What Do Your Managers Do?
After establishing a yardstick for measuring yourself, it is time to move on to the role of the managers under you. A manager’s responsibility is not just the timely delivery of work by their team. That is part of it, of course, since a team is defined by the business goal it is aiming to impact. Still, having a manager focused solely on delivery is usually cause for trouble, resulting in burnout, higher turnover, and lower quality.
Here are a few things that can serve as the responsibilities of a manager, other than the obvious delivery:
Team’s Advancement and Growth – Given the fact that R&D employees’ salaries are usually one of the most significant portions of a tech company’s budget, making the most of the investment is prudent. A great manager should serve as an amplifier for their teammates, helping them constantly grow and challenge themselves. That’s the difference between a manager that’s simply a project manager versus a manager that creates a growing team. This personal growth translates to higher morale, increased motivation, reduction in turnover, and these empowered employees will serve as the organization’s senior backbone or managerial reserve.
Ownership – Today, even if your organization is working in independent squads, there’s no place for a team that acts as a silo. Each team should care about the overall state of the company and the product. That means sharing knowledge, helping other efforts when possible, and maintaining Product Mastery of the entire product rather than just their own piece of it. By creating such a culture, the manager increases the likelihood of everyone in the organization to succeed, as well as creating personnel that might be moved to other teams more easily later on for their personal advancement or business needs.
Innovation – A team that challenges the status quo and keeps trying to reinvent and come up with novel approaches is worth its weight in gold. Among a manager’s responsibilities are cultivating this kind of thinking and mentoring the teammates to identify, assess, and test out opportunities.
Quality – This might be thought of as a byproduct of general delivery. Yet, a team might be regularly moving all of its sprint tasks to the Done column on the issue tracker, only to have a hoard of bugs reported later. If things are not truly done, and their delivery hurts customers or affects bottom lines, quality issues take the first row quickly. It’s not as straightforward to assess a team’s technical standard otherwise. They may be piling on reams of technical debt without anyone knowing outside. Making these visible is also a manager’s responsibility.
As part of the handbook each manager in your organization receives, you should set clear expectations about the importance of each of these in your specific situation and set goals together.
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