Does your tech startup need a CTO or VP Engineering?

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Last updated on April 11th, 2023

For startups, especially tech startups the focus is usually on building a strong technology architecture to get the product to the market. At the same time, startups have to focus on creating a strong people architecture – a set of people who will be able to take the company to success. The actual investment in the people architecture begins once the startup starts building a place for itself in the market. At this stage of a startup, some of the most important roles become those of the people taking the technology decisions. The question then is, should you hire a Chief Technology Officer or a VP Engineering?.

While some use these two terms interchangeably, the roles are far from being interchangeable.

The VP Engineering – technology champion or the people person?

A VP Engineering is focused on directing the development team’s efforts to meet the deadlines for product delivery. It is an internally focused role that is both technology and people-focused. The VP has to not only make solid and dependable technology choices but also has to be responsible for motivating people and to drive the day to day activities of the team to meet defined goals. Having said that, the VP Engineering won’t be (shouldn’t be?) working on the codebase. The VP needs deep technical knowledge, no doubt, such as how to best adoptAgile or which testing suite will meet the demands of the product. However, the VP will be more focused on the technology implementation, the people, the management aspects, the day to day workings, and the deliverables.

The CTO – the Tony Stark of an organization

To my mind, the CTO or Chief Technology Officers role is more future-oriented. It is the CTO who determines the technological direction of the company. The CTO’s decisions regarding technology will be driven by the business direction the organization wants to take. The technology decisions are taken by the CTO, therefore have to not only enable the current opportunity but also open doors for new business opportunities. The CTO could, therefore, be the enhanced version of the engineering leader who sets the technology vision. CTO’s lay the foundation of what needs to be built and how. They are the ones who are always up to date on the latest happenings in the fast-shifting technology landscape. Which are the platforms that will future-proof the product? How will big data impact any technology-related decision? Should they use a new language for large scale projects or is it just not worth the hassle? Should the organization just adopt cloud for software development and deployment and how will that impact the business? These are the kind of decisions a CTO must make. To put it simply, the CTO is the architect who provides the vision for the world-class skyscraper that you’ve set out to build

The role of the CTO does not usually involve the day to day activities of the team. Often, the deepest thinkers and the most astounding technical minds are not the best to manage a team. They might not be suited to plan out the nitty-gritty of the development work. I’m sure many CTOs will like to be compared to artists. It is the CTO who is focused on the bigger picture even when you cannot see one. They are the perfectionists. Much like Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark, perhaps
So, how do you then determine whether your startup needs a VP Engineering or a CTO?

The role to fill depends on the stage of the startup. Early-stage startups need a CTO as it is in this phase that we define the real engineering needs of the project, allocate budgets, determine the resource needs, etc. Since the teams are smaller and the objective is focused, leveraging the experience of the CTO becomes critical. It is also easier to run a small team until it reaches the inflection point where you have to scale soon

For startups that have crossed this phase, getting a VP Engineering on board makes more sense. Why? Because you already have clear business objectives, clear technical direction, and clear goals. You have a team of engineers in place that will need managing, organizing, and scaling. This is where adding a VP engineering makes sense.
However, growth-stage startups that have established a repeatable business model and have managed to gain a few reliable customers can benefit greatly from both, the CTO and the VP Engineering owing to the specific skills and competencies that they bring to the table.

While it can be tempting for startup founders to get someone who can play both these roles together, it could misfire in the long run. When hiring for success, it is best to allow the necessary bandwidth to an individual and not overstretch them too much as something or the other of value often tends to get compromised. After all, both these roles have a critical impact on the growth story of your startup. So, who are you hiring today-a VP Engineering or a CTO?

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