What is the top technical leader in a startup: The CTO, or the VP of Engineering?
As anybody who has worked in a startup can see, this is the wrong question to ask. These are very different roles, and the roles themselves change and evolve as the startup grows. Both are important for the business to scale.
Here is my take on the responsibilities of the CTO versus VP Engineering roles.
The CTO is the #1 technical guru of the company. He or she has deep insights into the protectable technologies and core competencies of the company. He or she stays abreast of cutting-edge research and development in his or her area of expertise, and in adjacent areas of interest that might have an impact on the company’s technical direction.
The CTO loves technology, and often keeps his or her hands dirty doing advanced development for interesting new technologies. He or she sometimes maintains a small “CTO office” of research engineers who can help him or her prototype things. This group can be permanently assigned, or they can be organized on a rotating basis, so a series of different engineers can enjoy the experience of working with the company’s technical guru. The CTO usually does not maintain a large staff.
Since the CTO is responsible for thought leadership and for maintaining the technical edge of the company, he or she will often be a key contributor to the company blog. He or she is often tasked with managing the company’s patent portfolio as well. This involves working with the VP of Engineering and his or her staff, as well as with the company’s patent attorneys to craft and implement a solid intellectual property protection strategy, including filing patents to protect core technologies, performing competitive analysis to ensure the company has the freedom to practice its core technologies without infringing on existing patents and the like.
The CTO has heavy influence into the technical strategy, which they co-develop with the VP of Engineering. He or she is part of the face of the company and usually takes on a lot of speaking engagements outside the company as part of a brand building process. He or she will also be significantly involved in technical due diligence for potential M&A deals.
Also read: Human Skills at the Center of Technology
The VP Engineering role traditionally includes multiple aspects:
- Personnel management – for small teams (up to 10 FTE), the VP Engineering is the direct supervisor of the technical staff. For larger teams (> 10 FTE), the VP E often manages contributing engineering managers, who serve as the direct supervisor of the technical staff. For teams at scale (> 100 FTE), the VP E’s direct reports will typically be senior level engineering directors, who in turn manage engineering managers.
- Program management and engineering execution – the VP Engineering is responsible for ensuring that the product vision is realized through excellence in execution. There is typically an overall program plan that incorporates all inter-dependencies between functional disciplines (e.g. mechanical, electrical, controls, software), which in turn is a part of a company program plan that incorporates inter-dependencies between departments (e.g. engineering, marketing, business development)
- Technical leadership – the VP Engineering is responsible for co-developing the technical strategy with the CTO, and for developing and maintaining a technical roadmap that will continue to innovate from a technical standpoint. The VP Engineering may personally serve as a systems architect, or may assign another engineer to assume that role.
- Strategy development – the VP Engineering serves as part of the senior staff, working in an interdisciplinary manner with their peers in other departments (e.g. VP Marketing, VP Business Development, VP Manufacturing and Ops) as well as the CEO, CTO, and COO (if present) to develop company strategy and product strategy.
The VP Engineering is traditionally responsible for managing the annual bottom-up budget for the engineering department, which is often the biggest cost center for a technology-based startup. This includes: headcount, consulting spend, prototyping costs, equipment cost, travel and entertainment, professional development, patent costs and more.
Great founding teams usually sport multiple co-founders with complementary backgrounds – usually, a hacker, a hustler and a designer make a good starting team. At this point in the startup’s lifecycle, the hacker or CTO is typically the only technical guru on board. The hacker / CTO usually serves as an individual contributor, in addition to leading a growing team of technical staff.
As the startup moves past seed stage and starts to hire employees, the hacker/CTO’s role starts to evolve. Once the headcount for the company goes past 15 or 20, the project and people management aspects of the job will start to dominate. Eventually the hacker/CTO might realize they are doing a lot of things that they don’t love (e.g. project and people management) and not spending time on the things that they do love (e.g. technical explorations). This is the time when startups ought to begin to think about bringing on a VP of Engineering.
A great resource: Mark Suster’s blog post on the same topic
To close this post, I’d like to point you to a fantastic post by Mark Suster, with an excellent 2×2 graphic depicting how the VP Engineering, CTO and Program manager are positioned on the axes of technical capability and process orientation. Enjoy.