[This blog was first posted in 2016, updated in 2018 and in 2020]
There comes a time in every scaling tech start-up’s life when an engineering team begins to show signs of needing help. The symptoms can include lost velocity in releasing new products/features, attrition or morale issues, fragile code or lack of innovation. I frequently hear CEOs and founders say “we need a new CTO” or “should we hire a VP of Engineering?”. But what does that really mean? A title is one thing, but the skills necessary to cure the symptoms is a whole other challenge.
Most tech startups have someone serving as CTO — whether it is one of the co-founders or a first senior hire. The role of the CTO is not straightforward and as a company scales, it’s unreasonable for that role to be the end-all-be-all. In the early days of a startup, the CTO is often the chief cook and bottle washer for all things technical. She is coding, serving as the de facto IT person and project manager as well as meeting customers alongside the CEO and helping with hiring decisions. She is expected to be deeply technical and often a domain expert. Firing on all of these cylinders may meet your company’s needs in the short-term, but quite often, there reaches a point where your CTO is no longer being excellent at what they came to your company to do.
In my experience, there tends to be two types of CTOs that evolve as a company grows:
The Evangelist — The shameless promoter of your product, this CTO is out on the road meeting prospects, existing customers and partners and marketing your product. At the same time, they are gathering valuable insight into your product, its pain-points and understanding how it compares to the competition. They are mindful of industry trends and the ecosystem of which your product belongs. They are the ultimate voice of the customer and are keenly aware of the product priorities. They set the vision for the “.next” of your product and the long-term roadmap. They may have once been a coder and understand the basics of your technology architecture. They can go head-to-head with other technology leaders in your space and represent your company at technology conferences. They also tend to be a recruiting magnet for engineering talent.
This CTO works hand-in-hand with the CEO and sales and marketing leads to set the strategy for the company — from market direction to the operations and scale of the business. They are financially savvy and comfortable presenting to and working with your Board of Directors.
The Expert — Often a domain expert or technical guru, this CTO is heads down with your engineering team ensuring your products are built to perform at scale. They may code, sit in code reviews, and mentor junior engineers. They are either designing your underlying architecture or at the very least leading that conversation and signing off on proposed plans. Also talent magnets, they attract senior engineers who wish to learn from this CTO’s experience. They may be key contributors to the open source community, prolific in filing patents, publishing technical papers and speaking at technical and academic conferences. While they enjoy meeting customers and value the insight from those meetings, they prefer more intimate meetings with technical members of customer teams and whiteboard sessions to brainstorm solutions vs. “selling” your products.
This CTO works closely with the sales and support team and often leaves the company strategy and growth discussions to the CEO and other leaders of the organization. They have an opinion on where the company should go, and they’re not afraid to share that, but they leave the details up to “management”.
In both cases above, it’s rare when one of these types of CTOs is also a master at execution. This is when it is important to have a VP of Engineering (VPE). While a VPE can often be someone who can serve as a voice of the customer, be a technical expert and/or represent the company in technical forums, the VPE’s focus is on GSD. Key characteristics of a VP of Engineering that can often differ from a CTO are:
- Process oriented — highly organized around priorities, velocity, quality and meeting deadlines. They have strong project management and communication skills.
- Great at hiring — pattern matching skills for not just technical expertise, but for people who are collaborative and mission-driven. Knows how to ID the prima donna engineer from the eager-to-learn engineer and when to say “no” even with a great looking resume. Being additive to the team is paramount to success.
- Great at growing their team — this isn’t just about about going from 10 to 40 or 100+ engineers. This is about career development. They’ve got a track record for bringing junior engineers into an organization and developing them into technology leaders and domain experts. Their former engineers have followed them from company to company because they are great to work with. They know how to have fun, but also how to appropriately push a team towards meeting a deadline with urgency and not burn them out.
- Challenges the status-quo — they won’t just keep building what the co-founders started, but will question both the what and the how. They understand the impact that technical debt can have on the long term scalability of your products. They also know how to tune processes without slowing the company with process. They are motivated to deliver products and features that customers not only need, but love. They partner well with their PM colleagues and both respect and appreciate the inputs from outside engineering (sales, support, the CTO…).
- Not afraid to get their hands dirty — they lead/attend code reviews, can code if there is an emergency, enjoy tinkering with competitors’ products to understand advantages/challenges of your own products, and appreciate the fine art of squashing bugs. They come in early and stay late when there’s a deadline — even if it’s just to make sure engineers are getting food and coffee.
- Strategic thinker — while a VP of Engineering may not be at the the table deciding the long term strategy of the company, they are part of the discussion. They understand tradeoffs of time-to-market vs. quality and value the need to get a MVP out the door to garner customer feedback early on. They may push for a product, feature or carving out time to catch up on tech-debt, but also respect the larger vision of the roadmap and know when to let go of something that isn’t a priority — in fact, the really good VPE’s kill things sooner than a CTO or CEO may like for the sake of velocity and GSD.
When you’ve decided it’s time to fork that technology leadership role and have both a CTO and a VPE, look for someone eager to create a partnership who prefers to lean into GSD and growing teams and who values the technology leadership, vision and evangelism of your CTO. That person may be a strong leader within your engineering organization or you’ll have to recruit for the position. If recruiting from outside of your company, be leery of career CTOs who seek a role as VPE at your company — they may say they’re willing to be in charge of GSD, but could struggle to partner with your CTO. Look for examples of their past engineering leadership roles as managers or tech leads. Have their former employees followed them to different companies? Also look for measurable achievements like improved velocity rates, quality improvements or hiring/team development metrics. Those are telltale signs that you’ve got a solid VPE candidate.
Sometimes it takes a lot of soul searching for a founding CTO to realize they’re not serving the company well around VPE-types of activities. I’ve seen plenty of CTOs worried that with a VPE on board, they’re not sure what’s next for them at the company. I’ve also seen CTOs excel when partnered with a great VPE where they can set the vision and execution strategy in tandem. Similarly, I have seen companies bring in a great CTO when their current head of engineering is just not ready for or interested in that role (internal or external facing). It can be a great mentoring opportunity for the head of engineering and/or allows them to keep focusing on GSD.
One more thing to consider (added in 2020): Whether they more closely associate with the Evangelist or the Expert, CTOs can also be great leaders of VPs (Engineering, Product, Design, etc.). They can “glue” these teams together to ensure that the vision and execution of products move well together. These CTOs can also serve as bridges to other teams — fostering healthy working relationships with support, sales, marketing, etc.. However, not every CTO is (or wants to be) a great people/team leader, even at a higher and more strategic level. In these situations, VPs may be better served by reporting to CEO or COO. When the organization is designed this way, the CTO would typically report directly to the CEO and could still have a team of individual contributors (architects, scientists, mini-CTOs) report to them if the need/desire arises.
Have you struggled with the CTO to VPE fork? Share your experience in the comments!