July 30, 2015

VPE vs CTO – who does what?

The rapid development of the UK tech industry over the last three years has created some ambiguity over the roles of CTO and VP of Engineering (VPE): who does what, and what exactly does each title mean?

Within an early-stage start-up, existing team members often take on additional responsibilities until hiring can catch up with the pace of growth. On occasion, titles are awarded to acknowledge the contribution of a long-standing team member as the company grows, despite no change in responsibility. In other circumstances, the title of VPE might have been given to someone who had yet to prove themselves in order to give the CEO the opportunity to hire over them should they fail to keep up with the scale of the business.There are CTOs earning £45,000 and VPEs on £250,000: clearly, the title doesn’t always correlate with seniority or responsibility. These factors, combined with a culture of creating roles to fit candidates rather than the other way around, have naturally created a significant amount of variance between businesses concerning the delineation of roles.

Hierarchy and responsibilities

In an early stage start-up, the CTO is generally a founder member of the team. They’re the resident “technical guru”, as described by MIT senior lecturer and start-up veteran Elaine Chen. It’s up to them to define the company’s tech culture, be a thought leader and ensure the company’s output remains on the cutting edge.

Once the team begins to grow, the CTO must also become a manager of people and projects. This additional responsibility is not necessarily a positive change for someone creative, innovative and technically gifted enough to be a founding CTO. There are several examples of people who have managed to make this transition, such as Peter Mitchell at Fleetmatics and Ben Medlock at Swiftkey, but more often than not, the CTO will be superseded in this circumstance.

When the engineering team reaches 20+, the need arises to divide the role of CTO in two: one person managing the development teams, and someone else acting at a technical visionary, largely outward facing, working at board level, dealing with investors and building the product roadmap. Depending on the development and natural skills of the resident CTO, either they would be endorsed and hire in a VPE or, more often than not, they would transition into a Chief Architect, Chief Scientist or VPE role and a more experienced CTO would be hired in. Some co-founding CTOs struggle to make this move, but they are often highly motivated due to their founding equity.

Joyent’s former VPE and current CTO Bryan Cantrill believes the VPE should be the best developer on the team in order to earn their colleagues’ respect. They’re responsible for realising the vision by developing and managing the team, getting the product ready for delivery on time and optimising internal processes. The VPE manages development and cross-functional teams, including design, QA, front end and back end. It’s their job to create an efficient, effective production line and keep it running smoothly. In a smaller team, they’ll be very hands-on, but as the team scales their role will become more managerial, process driven and focused on optimising delivery.

A CTO is the visionary for technology and, in some cases, for the product. They ensure the technical roadmap and product roadmaps sync up, and that the platform and software is scalable. They’re commercially aware and have a big-picture view, they build budgets and understand modelling, creating a timescale and budget for the VPE to work within. They’re the face of the company, and must understand how the technology fits within the broader context and be continually aware of how the market is migrating.

Who to hire

If you need someone hands-on to take responsibility for delivery and team building, hire a VPE. But if you need someone for overarching strategy, to manage stakeholders and build product roadmaps, look for a CTO.

In our understanding of the roles and responsibilities, a tech business cannot survive without a CTO but can manage without a VPE. However, almost all successful technical businesses have both working seamlessly together.

The stage and size of the business often dictates the hire: what an early-stage start-up needs now is not what it will need in six months or a year. Our clients often say they need to hire in a technical leader with broad capabilities, able to deal with a variety of immediate challenges. The reality is that the best coder is very unlikely to be the best person to present to your investors, build a budget or manage a large engineering team. Our view is to hire 6-12 months out. A good CTO should be able to bring in developers and engineers better than themselves, and perhaps a VPE they’ve worked with successfully in the past.

Some clients are looking towards interim options as a solution to bring in proven CTO experience as seen with Kelly Waters from Guardian and Reed Elsevier, Matt Batchelor from Bauer Media and Burst, and Rob Kemp of Momondo and DMGT.

From VPE to CTO

Often this is the natural progression: they have the knowledge and vision, they’re respected, and they’re used to managing both up and down. But despite their aspirations and the wishes of their CEO, sometimes they’re simply not the best person for the job.

However, if the person is forward-looking, naturally creative but also commercially and strategically savvy, combined with the VPE skills of being product-focused and a good motivator of people, this can be an extremely successful blend. An excellent example of this is Greg Pass, Twitter’s engineering lead through the ‘fail whale’ times, who was promoted to become the company’s first ever CTO.

The position of CTO has increased in prominence across multiple sectors at every stage and the definition has become broader and more strategic as businesses have grown increasingly digital. But by comparison, the definition of a VPE has not shifted at all.

After hopefully clarifying the personal characteristics, skills and attributes of both a CTO and a VPE, ironically, and just to confuse you, the difference between a good CTO and a great CTO is having some of the successful qualities of a VPE and vice versa!

This post was produced in partnership with James Goodrich at Albany Partners. 

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