VP Engineering Vs CTO

Last week on MBA Mondays I posted about the difference between CFO and VP Finance. In the comments to that post, I was asked about VP Eng vs CTO and I figured that had the makings of a good post too. So here we go.

Like VP Finance & CFO, the differences in the two positions are not just about seniority. In fact, in the case of CTO and VP Eng, seniority is often a non-factor. They are often peers. A VP Eng can report to a CTO. And a CTO can report to a VP Eng (although this last one is less frequent).

A VP Engineering is ideally a great manager and a great team builder. He or she will be an excellent recruiter, a great communicator, and a great issue resolver. The VP Eng's job is to make everyone in the engineering organization successful and he or she needs to fix the issues that are getting in the way of success.

A CTO is ideally the strongest technologist in the organization. He or she will be an architect, a thinker, a researcher, a tester and a tinkerer. The CTO is often the technical co-founder if there is one (and you know I think there must be one).

When a company has a strong CTO and a strong VP Engineering that trust, respect, and like each other, you have a winning formula. The CTO makes sure the technical approach is correct and the VP Engineering makes sure the team is correct. They are yin and yang.

Startup companies in their earliest stages will have neither position. The ideal web/mobile startup will have a CEO/founder who will also wear the VP Product hat. It will have a technical co-founder who will wear both the CTO and VP Eng hats. And it will have a few more engineers. And maybe a community manager.

But as the startup grows and the engineering team needs a layer of management, these two roles come into play. If the technical co-founder is a great manager/leader, they will naturally migrate into the VP Engineering role and eventually seek to hire a CTO or promote a CTO from within. But it is more common for the technical co-founder to migrate into the CTO position and seek to hire a VP Engineering to run the engineering team on a day to day basis. Either model works. It just depends on the skills and personality of the team that is in place.

It is very rare to find a person who can do both the VP Eng and CTO jobs at the same time. They require very different skills and very different time allocations. I've seen it work a few times, but it is the exception that proves the rule in my mind.

#MBA Mondays

Comments (Archived):

  1. Scott Barnett

    Fred – nice post.  By CEO/VP Product, I assume you mean Product Manager, correct?  If so, I’m in 100% agreement – one addition, is the technical co-founder should be very cognizant of what they are really good at.  If they aren’t strong as a CTO, don’t take the title just because it has a ‘C’ in it.  Mark Suster wrote a similar (albeit longer!) post on this same topic, with similar themes – http://www.bothsidesoftheta…

    1. fredwilson

      i hadn’t seen mark’s post. thanks for the link. he’s awesome at these sorts of things.yes, i mean product manager

    2. Rohan

      Nice link to Mark’s post. 🙂

  2. Conrad Ross Schulman

    Do any USV portfolio companies have one person doing both the VP Eng and CTO jobs at the same time?

    1. fredwilson

      well the early stage ones, for surei suspect there is at least one that has it at a later stage

      1. Conrad Ross Schulman

        are you able to spill the beans on which later stage company? 

        1. fredwilson

          I didnt say i knew which one it is

          1. Matt A. Myers

            I love basing things on probability – lessens friction of thinking!Caution to others: Don’t base things on probability if you aren’t good at it.. and when it matters, do some calculations (and maybe some fact checking)…

      2. Alex Murphy

        one with a tech team in Austin 😉 cto and vp engineering.

  3. William Mougayar

    This sums it up very well & you’ve described us here: “The ideal web/mobile startup will have a CEO/founder who will also wear the VP Product hat. It will have a technical co-founder who will wear both the CTO and VP Eng hats. And it will have a few more engineers.”One thing I would emphasize is that as these 2 roles diverge, the VP Engineering is a lot more operational than the CTO.That said, what is the inflection point in the startup growth for which you decide to split the 2 roles, in your experience? It shouldn’t be just the # of engineers, because I’ll put 2 senior dev managers before I split the roles.

    1. fredwilson

      i think the needs of the company will determine when you need to split the roles. when you feel you aren’t managing your eng team well enough.

  4. Joe Yevoli

    Perfecting timing for this post.  Thanks, Fred.

  5. Kasi Viswanathan Agilandam

    CTO – conceive the damn thing and make it work at any scale.VPE – takes all the pain while cleaning the debris while scaling.Analogy to a child birth and growing into the next HULK will fit.

    1. fredwilson

      well said

  6. Rohan

    When you start getting involved in a portfolio company, do you recommend these splits? 

    1. fredwilson

      no. but we do make sure the founder/CEO is aware of the issues

      1. Rohan

        Doesn’t your massive reputation get in the way a bit here, Fred?What you might call awareness may often be thought of as ‘gospel’?Or am I missing something? 

        1. fredwilson

          Most of the entrepreneurs we back call bullshit on me regularly. And thats how it should be

          1. Rohan

            Agree on thats how it should be.Was wondering if that’s how it is.. :)That’s good, then.

  7. Kasi Viswanathan Agilandam

    DNA of the product has to come from the CTO or else he/she is another programmer.DNA of the company has to come from the CEO or else he/she is another manager.

  8. Chad Dickerson

    Well put, Fred.  This really nails it: “The CTO makes sure the technical approach is correct and the VP Engineering makes sure the team is correct.  They are yin and yang.”

    1. fredwilson

      i learned much of this from you Chad

  9. Aaron Klein

    It’s interesting how this developed for us because of the nature of our technology.I’m very engaged in product and am practically the community manager too. :)My Director of Engineering is headed towards leading our engineering team as it grows, providing that’s what he wants to do. But I could see him deciding that he wants to keep his hands dirty in more of a CTO like role.And my Director of Core Tech is the mathematician making the Risk Fingerprint algorithms work under the hood. He’s probably headed toward a CTO role, although maybe the title is more focused on the scientific piece of his job.For me, the best news is that we’ve got a dedicated, agile, fast-moving team that doesn’t care about titles but cares about delivering what our user community needs.And that’s what really matters.

    1. Kasi Viswanathan Agilandam

      Yes. 110% agree on that. Delivering what user needs. Titles are like shoes … you wear it and polish it once in a while. U don’t like it wear another one …The Oxygen for the company comes from what user wants.We can live with an unpolished shoe but not with used O2.

      1. Aaron Klein

        Well put. It’s definitely important to have organizational clarity and everyone know what their roles are. It just doesn’t require that much effort when you’re <10 people.And some things are way more important. 🙂

    2. laurie kalmanson

      hats != people but they need to be assignedin ux/ui/ia work: core skills plus content or visual or tech is the typical mix.  hybrids are rare and precious.

      1. Aaron Klein

        I am extraordinarily fortunate that our Director of Engineering joined us because he is an amazing hybrid of artist and wicked smart engineer.We haven’t gotten every product decision right, but everything we’ve built has been beautiful and well engineered. 🙂

        1. laurie kalmanson

          way cool. i have a theory that half of agile methodology is the wish to keep/promote a startup environment: just as many smart people as can fit around a table, taking turns lifting when its their turn(s) coming around

          1. Aaron Klein

            I like it…and I look forward to trying to prove it. :)Apple has got to be the coolest multi-billion dollar startup ever.

          2. William Mougayar

            Great comment Laurie. I wouldn’t have it any other way.Once agile, one never goes back.

        2. laurie kalmanson

          i did a roundup post on hats/roles in ux/ui/iahttp://lauriekalmanson.blog…

      2. Matt A. Myers

        I used to code backend. But I don’t love it anymore – it puts me into a zombie-mode that takes away enjoyment of life to some degree.I love doing mockups though, and I’ve recently started diving into CSS, etc. and I will get in-depth; I feel like when I was 11 years old again, and could work 16 hours a day just figuring out how to make things look and work how I want. I’m not sure why I didn’t try sooner. Perhaps I assumed it would be similar to backend coding, though with frontend the “reward” is pretty immediate visual and I’m starting to get good with rapid prototyping tools.

        1. laurie kalmanson

          awesome. some deep data backend developers can see the visual stuff and some are blind to it; neither one is good/bad; it’s just important to know

  10. Craig Perler

    Always wondered the difference between a CTO and a CIO (does it even matter?) – the web seems a bit hazy on the subject, but maybe it’s an appropriate question given today’s post.  Thanks!

    1. fredwilson

      it is rare for a company in our portfolio to have a CIOi tend to think of that role as more common in large organizations

      1. Laura Yecies

        Not a CIO as in the sense of in a large company managing internal systems but in our company the VP of Operations plays a critical role – both strategy and execution of the IT operations is a core part of our business.  In our case he reports to the VP of Engineering because ultimately I want one person to be able to make tradeoffs and optimize between Eng/Ops.

    2. Cam MacRae

      Worked with one, the other, and both. Sometimes they cross over, but when you have both the CTO functions as per this post and the CIO tends to preside over capability and process (re)engineering.

  11. Jonathan Berkowitz

    Within our portfolio, VP Engineering tends to have a lot of organizational authority “just because of the role.”  CTO’s tend to need to do a bit more influencing of the team to align people to their thinking.  In this way, CTOs, to me, tend to demonstrate more “influence without authority” on a daily basis.

  12. bfeld

    Following are a few more posts on this from a few years ago. Two are from Todd Vernon, the CTO (co-founder) of Raindance, and the co-founder / CEO of Lijit (now part of Federated Networks). The other is from me. All saying similar things – just different nuances.http://www.feld.com/wp/archhttp://falseprecision.typephttp://falseprecision.typep…If you don’t feel like clicking through, here’s a preview:This led us to the definition of CTO and VP Eng that I was working with.  I started with VP Eng and thought of some of the great ones I’ve worked with.  They are process / management gods (and goddesses) – totally focused on building and shipping products.  Most of them are “medium technical” – strong enough to stand up to the engineers they manage, but not necessarily the best coders on the team.  A few were rock star developers; a few were non-programmers (although I think that’s more like me saying I can’t program – where the key word that is missing is “anymore” which implies I could if I didn’t have other things to do.)In contrast, the great CTO’s usually can’t manage their way out of a paper bag, but have huge vision, the ability to pull an all-nighter and crank out a rough prototype of the thing they are thinking about, have the unique ability to translate complex / abstract thoughts into simple English that a non-technical end-user can understand, and a willingness (or even desire) to get up in front of 1,000 people and talk about the latest greatest thing they are working on / thinking about.  They are also perfectly happy to work collaboratively with the VP Eng while leaving the engineering team completely alone.

    1. fredwilson

      very consistent with what i was trying to convey. thanks for adding substance to the discussion

    2. Rohan

      Nice Brad, thanks. 

    3. laurelfreyja

      From your first link: ” The biggest was that one person could play the role of both CTO and VP Eng until a company got up to around 20 people.  Once an organization has more than 20 people, there needed to be a separate CTO and VP Eng.  In cases where there was only one person trying to do both roles, there were three cases:He was ineffective at bothHe defaulted into the VP Eng roleHe consciously chose the VP Eng role and left the CTO role to the technical CEO (this only worked when there was a technical CEO)”Hi Brad, what are your thoughts on if the technical co-founder later turns out to be a bad visionary/CTO and is really more of a VP Eng (with non-technical CEO who couldn’t take over the CTO role)? Do you find that at that point it is best to find another CTO? Have you come across cases like this where the technical co-founder is resistant to hiring a CTO?

      1. Alex Urevick-Ackelsberg

        We just hit 20 people and were struggling with this exact issue. The more I work on my business the more fascinated I am that things that seem unique to us are actually as close to “laws” as you can find in organizational behaviors/structures. 

      2. bfeld

        Yes – absolutely. This situation also works well – where the technical co-founder morphs from CTO to VP Eng and the company hires a new CTO. Often this new CTO will report to the technical co-founder (now VP Eng); other times it’ll be the CEO. I much prefer the person reporting to the CEO.

        1. laurelfreyja

          Thanks for the reply, Brad. I agree that it’s preferable for the new CTO to report to the CEO, but I’m glad to know that the other situation can work as well!

    4. petewarden

      Thanks for the reminder Brad, Todd’s pieces on that have stuck with me since I first read them. For me the money quote was that the CTO  “moves the business forward though technology, breaks glass, etc… The VP of Engineering keeps the organization out of trouble and moving the ball through process and endless lists of shit that by itself drags the company to a complete halt.”When I think back on the successful (and not so successful) startups I’ve been involved with, having that double team of a driver and a fixer seems to be crucial.

    5. ShanaC

      Are there people who can do both – and what type is preferable to start out with?

      1. ErikSchwartz

        Early on you will make much more progress with just a VPE than just a CTO.If you grow fast however that can bite you in the ass. I suspect some of twitter’s growth problems were it was initially architected by tacticians not strategists.

      2. Andy S. Parsons

        There are people who can do both, but I agree that’s an exception.

      3. Pete Griffiths

        Erik and I disagree on this one.  My strong preference is for the CTO personality because in the very early stage you are not looking for a manager of people and systems you don’t have yet, you are looking for an architect implementor, a hands on senior engineer who can build something with an eye on the future.IMHO there are very very very few who can do both to the same degree of excellence.

        1. ErikSchwartz

          That’s what makes horse races :-)CTO’s are measured on brilliant scalable solutions.VPE’s are measured in amount of shit completed.In my experience with a CTO and no VPE you spend way too much time designing perfection and not nearly enough time building the first version. CTOs tend to try to launch perfection. Your first real test point is with users and you’ll get to users faster with a VPE than a CTO.Of course YMMV…

          1. Eric

            My personal experience was that the VP R&D was hesitant to start building things while the CTO was ready to start on a prototype.It seems to depend on the people, and how much they are ready to work or to take a risk.

      4. bfeld

        It’s really hard to find people who can do both. I don’t really value one over the other – by the time you get to 20 people you need both.

        1. Alex Murphy

          i think this depends largely on who the 20 people are, and more importantly who the next 20 people will be.

    6. Pete Griffiths

      I couldn’t agree more.  The italicized text nails it.

    7. Sean Leach

      To add to what Brad says, in my personal opinion, there are two skills I have seen in some of the best CTO’s that you might not always look for in a VP, Engineering – Sales and Product Management.Generally the VP of Product owns the product execution, roadmap, comp analysis, pricing etc. The best CTO’s help drive the longer term product roadmap, not just the technical roadmap.  You can’t see the technical roadmap without translating that into product vision.  So the CTO and VP, Product work closely to come up with the 2-5 year product roadmap, which the VP, Product then works on realizing.In addition, the CTO is often the senior leader brought in by the sales team to help with large prospects etc.  They have to be polished in their ability to convey the value of the technology and product to convince the senior technical leadership of the prospective company that they should entrust their business to the pitching companies product/service.  Engineers often think “oh I could easily be a salesman pitching our products” but it really is quite difficult to do it right, just like building a great product is often seen as “easy” by outsiders.Some may argue a good VP of Engineering will have those two skills as well, which maybe they will, but I think it’s far more important for the CTO to have them.Just my .02

  13. niyogi

    Let’s not forget that around all of this, you need one of these folks to not consider it beneath them to hack on product – because at the beginning, this is what matters most.  Only then do you have a startup worth of segregating and filling these roles.

  14. markslater

    just use JIRA. It will natively tell you who does what and when you need to split the roles. its an amazing product.

    1. Matt A. Myers

      I’ve heard of it before. Just took a look at the tour. It’s nice to see fuller project management tools these days – really makes the prospect of deepened synergy/better workflow a reality.

      1. markslater

        its awsome. i can see user stories being created, view linear reps of progress, see code being checked in and out, and on and on…..its an amazing lens for someone in my role to peer in to the engine room – and to roll up my sleeves. It removes any FAT – its painfully obvious when people are stepping in to a sandbox where they dont belong…..its just a great tool.

    2. Dale Allyn


  15. COinTO

    In my experience, we considered CTO to be the expert on what goes on inside the product, the how of what is built on the inside – that which makes the product faster, more secure, power efficient, better performing; the VP Eng is in charge of what the technical world sees the product to be, what is seen from the outside – how it interacts, how it connects, making sure it meets the requirements (including schedule), turning the technology into a product.The CTO should be a propeller-head (for those who might know the bugs bunny reference) while the VP Eng should be a pragmatist (the practical one).

  16. reece

    great explanation of how the roles evolvesomehow i feel that VP of Engineering isn’t a desirable rolein speaking with technical candidates, less of them seem interested in climbing to the VP of engineering, instead preferring to write code and build great products… and right now, that’s ok with me 😉

  17. Mike Shaver

     I spent a meaningful portion of my career bridging those worlds (some of it with the VPE title, some with CTO, or no relevant title at all): driving organizational development and effectiveness as you describe, but also providing a lot of technical leadership. There were others who contributed in each of those areas as well, obviously, and delegating to people’s strengths was key to being successful.So to me, a company doesn’t need a VPE and a CTO as much as they need to have those organization and technical capabilities in sufficient quantity, and it matters a lot less how they’re divided between people or titles. Having a model for how other VPEs behave can help drive professional growth for sure, but it can also be limiting if you’re not careful.

  18. ErikSchwartz

    To follow up on what I was discussing yesterday on programming vs engineering.CTO – engineering – high level – architectural decisions – strategy.VPE – programming – in the mud – implementation decisions – tactics.

  19. zvozin

    A really good reason you don’t want to conflate the roles is, they require personality traits that don’t often co-exist in one person. That, and that in a growing company both are more than full-time jobs.

  20. hypermark

    Two quick comments. One is that the best CTOs that I have worked with play an integral role in securing strategic customer wins. How? They instill confidence and clarity for the customer that you understand the ‘root set’ of problems the customer faces. Plus, they can recognize/identify when the current state of the solution is within a step of satisfying the customer’s needs (and generalizable to larger market).Two is that there are a lot of CTO candidates with impressive resumes that are far removed from the real world of shipping product. It’s the tech equivalent of Biz Dev, if not rigorous on the hire process.

    1. fredwilson

      Great point about CTOs as sales assists!

  21. Werner Vogels

    I have always compared them as that a VP of Engineering wakes up each morning concerned whether he/she has the absolutely best engineering team and the CTO wakes up concerned whether they have the absolute best technology.But there are many different roles for CTOs. I have written about what I see as the four major categories some time ago: http://www.allthingsdistrib…

    1. Kasi Viswanathan Agilandam

       CTO – cheer that other.

    2. fredwilson

      wow. thanks so much for taking the time to chime in here werner. i am very appreciative.

      1. markslater

        ladies and gents thats the CTO of amazon!RRRRESPEC!fanboy here!

        1. Tom Labus

          Big time thanks.

        2. fredwilson


      2. Donna Brewington White

        How very cool.

      3. Mark Essel

        Werner has commented here a few times (according to disqus only 4), I remembered the name.I had no idea he was the CTO of Amazon.Nice surprise.

    3. Otis Funkmeyer

      Yah, but what do YOU know about the subject? 😉

      1. markslater


      2. Nall

        Did you eat Otis Spunkmeyer cookies as a child? Damn, that brings back pretty sweet (er, no pun intended) memories.

        1. Otis Funkmeyer

          i only ate otis spunkmeyer cookies for a brief time when i was a stoner in college… and that’s the truth.

          1. markslater

            i’m doin the neck roll right now!

          2. Otis Funkmeyer

            lol! *that* is wutsup 🙂

    4. Matt A. Myers

      I feel I’d be more of a External Facing Technologist and Big Thinker than fitting CEO role, though I’m wearing many hats right now, and I imagine healthy companies will have some overlap across all titles.

    5. Chris Kenst

      Werner, just a heads up the link to your website is misspelled. You should be able to fix that on disqus.  

      1. Werner Vogels

        I am sorry Chris but for me clicking the link works, are you seeing something different? (Disqus truncates the text piece but not the link)

        1. Chris Kenst

          I’m referring to the link in your name not in the text of your post. Your name at the top of your posts has your website’s link but two letters are transposed. =)

          1. Werner Vogels

            Arrrgh, thanks. fixed.

          2. Jordan Elpern-Waxman

            A VP of Engineering would never have made that mistake 😉

    6. William Mougayar

      Hi Werner, What a treat to have you comment here on this topic. Indeed, the larger & more diverse the organization is, the more complex & multifaceted the CTO’s role.A great CTO can certainly make the VP Engineering’s job a lot easier by keeping the organization always a step ahead and ready to exploit the right technologies at the right time. I also believe that great organizations and great CTOs go hand in hand, whether the company is small or large. Therefore I’ve always seen you as a role model for other CTOs.

      1. Mark Essel

        I always enjoy Werner’s posts, but had no idea he was CTO @ Amazon.

  22. Andy S. Parsons

    Great post, Fred. I think on balance you’re right, but it depends heavily on the individuals in the roles. What growing companies should strive for is balance of authority, experience and execution between CEO, VP Product, CTO, VPE. If these folks feel accountable to one another and it’s reflected in rapid, useful product progress, you have something stellar.  But there are many different sets of skilled individuals who can achieve it. 

    1. fredwilson

      Great point andy

  23. woan

    I think the time allocation is really the key here. From personal experience, each is a full-time job+ so even when a person can do both, it is really hard to juggle the operational nature of the VP of Engineering and strategic nature of the CTO position simultaneously.

  24. Matt Straz

    Great post Fred but I’m surprised that nobody here has disputed the orthodoxy of the CEO/CTO diad. Has every successful software company utilized this co-founder structure?This may be a pattern that VC’s recognize and like but its not always what’s best for the entrepreneur. An experienced founder with a team of talented developers can get to market without all of the CTO/COO/CRO overhead and end up with a better exit personally which is sort of the goal. At some point those hires are necessary, but not always Day 1.The problem with VCs insisting on the CEO/CTO diad is that it forces the founder to give up even more before there’s any traction.Obviously this is an entrepreneur POV.

    1. Alex Urevick-Ackelsberg

      I think it’s important for more than just VCs- it’s about signaling your organizational structure to people not used to dealing with startups. We started out with unorthodox titles (I was Business Lead, my technical co-founder was our Lead Developer). We moved away from that because it was too much trouble explaining our roles to outsiders (potential clients mostly). I also think that creating managerial frameworks for new entrepreneurs is important, since the issues that led to the creation of the term are faced by many startups, and they provide a good shortcut to evolving the company’s structure. Like any shortcut you have to avoid adopting structures just because it’s the norm, but ultimately I think they provide at least a starting point…

    2. Alex Murphy

      don’t like cro at allceo and cto cofounders does not equal 50/50

      1. Mark Essel

        I was under the impression that the most common 2 cofounder split was 50/50. While it’s far from required, it’s not unreasonable if neither is bringing in outside capital/resources.

        1. Alex Murphy

          can be, just doesn’t have to be is allthere a lot of reasons to make it something other than 50/50

          1. Mark Essel

            Would you say the 50/50 2 founder split is exceptional then?

    3. fredwilson

      I didnt say CTO. I said a technical cofounder. You need someone who can build the team of builders unless you are that person

  25. Dennis Buizert

    Wow that feels great knowing that an question I had gets answered in a separate post! Anyway, to me it is much more clearer in this difference. I guess that you only hear about the CTO and never about a VP. I will remember this for my startup.Thanks for answering it Fred. 

  26. Alex Urevick-Ackelsberg

    Thanks for this very helpful post! I swear that I sometimes think my mind is being read with these MBA Mondays posts- though I suppose the brilliance of the series is that it covers issues that affect most startups. Anyway, thanks again- you helped end a debate with my (technical) co-founder!

  27. howardlindzon

    Very helpful Fred.  Great to truly hear something like this.  

  28. sigmaalgebra

    I look at this issue a bit differently.Broadly I want a ‘flatter organization’ and fewer levels of management where the CEO ‘understands his business’ top to bottom because, like many startup Main Street entrepreneurs, when he founded his business early on he did versions of all that work himself. Generally, before a really big company with thousands of employees, I’m not thrilled with the C-level except just the CEO.For context, we are considering, say, a Web 2.0 startup after it has grown enough to start hiring people. Nearly all successful businesses grow this much, and the main difference about a Web 2.0 company is just the ‘business idea’ and the strong role of technical topics.So, for such a startup, I would want the CEO to have done all the technical work, including writing all the software, e.g., via http://www.avc.com/a_vc/201…needed to go live and get the first good traction. From then on, the CEO should be hiring people to do larger versions of work he already did. So, he ‘understands his business’ which is important.By the time he has about 100 technical people and a busy server farm, he will need to handle, say,(1) network management(2) server management(3) database management(4) production software development(5) prototype software development(6) advanced technical R&D(7) improved/new product conceptualization(8) new business directionsTo me that looks like eight technical VPs reporting to the CEO.Of course the company also needs VPs for each of:(1) marketing and publicity,(2) sales, customer support and service,(3) finance, accounting,(4) budgeting and purchasing,(5) HR.So that’s five more VPs.So that’s 13 VPs and should be enough ‘top management’ to carry the company to well over 1000 people.To coordinate across these 13 people, the CEO can hold a weekly meeting of about two hours. Then each VP should give a report of about 30 minutes to the CEO once or twice a month. Otherwise the CEO should have means to know what is going on top to bottom in his organization, right down to each course an employee takes in computer science, each major piece of software progress, each baby born to the family of an employee, each new rack installed in the server farm, etc.For the last five VPs, early on their work could have been handled, in turn, as the company grew, by the founder, an office manager, a VP of operations, and then expanding to VPs as above.To have another layer of management, say, C-level, between the CEO and the VPs can be dangerous: The CEO will risk too much delegation and no longer ‘knowing his business’ and, thus, cases of ‘organizational goal subordination’, committee thinking, resistance to change, arrogance, organizational ossification, CYA processes, inward direction, NIH syndromes, turf wars, empire building, blame game playing, fighting with someone down the hall, ignoring the customers, ignoring the competitors, throttling subordinates, risk aversion, budget squabbles, ‘mushroom management’ (keep subordinates in the dark and feed them BS), gossip power grabbing, the Peter Principle, bozo explosions, and grand new cases of Murphy’s laws. Then if customers want something, they have to call and ask but never on a Wednesday because that ruins two weekends.

    1. Alex Murphy

      so, in general, this is a good way to think about life at a startup, especially if you were going to write a white paper or an ebook.but in practice, it never works like it should in a white paper or an ebook. while all of the great books from ge, xerox, and ibm would lead one to believe that an org should be very flat and go from 1 to 13 to 150, in a start up, it is quite common to find many roles where there is a manager with 2 reports.  And the org is quite tall.For a web company, splitting the role of CTO and VP engineering is more about keep the ship up and moving while we have a new ship being built over here.  It is more about the separation of production and R&D.And most importantly, it is the difference between a well funded start up and one that is bootstrapping.  See, bootstrapping companies generally can not afford a CTO and a VP of engineering, well, until they are no longer bootstrapping.And, while we glorify and adore all of the well funded startups we read about on Tech Crunch and on AVC;) most start ups are not like this.  And for those companies, it is a wise to have a head of technology that can chew gum, scratch his tummy, pick his nose, and walk all at the same time.

      1. sigmaalgebra

        It appears that we are largely in agreement.As usual, I only implied a central point and failed to make it clear:  I discussed organization (A) once a company has 100 or so technical people and mentioned that at (B) the beginning the CEO should just do everything himself including writing all the code needed through good traction.  Of course here with (B) I am having no patience at all with a CEO who needs help technically; i.e., non-technical CEOs need not apply!Or, a Main Street entrepreneur who starts a pizza shop definitely knows how to make pizza; BELIEVE ME, in Chicago the founder of Alinea knows how to cook; so, an entrepreneur who starts a Web 2.0 company definitely should know Web site programming — all his business needs at least to make a good start.  As I put it, a CEO needs to “understand his business”; each of Dave Thomas of Wendy’s, Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs of Apple ‘understood his business’; I have no patience with or hope for anything else.So, I omitted what goes between the (B) CEO doing everything and the (A) 100 technical people with several technical VPs.You, then, mentioned that in that interval between (A) and (B) there can be lots of, say, ‘organizational flux’.  Right.  Then there is no VP of rats; instead, anyone who sees a rat kills it right away.For the point I didn’t make clear, by discussing (B) when the CEO does everything and (A) when there are 100 technical people and several technical VPs, I was concentrating on JUST listing the work to be done and what people were going to do that work.  So my point was, I was analyzing the growth JUST in terms of such work and people without any attention at all to any pre-conceived or usual ‘roles’ for a VP Engineering or CTO.In particular, I avoided, side-stepped, ‘finessed’ Fred’s issue in this thread by setting aside any pre-conceived roles for a VP Engineering or CTO and, instead, concentrated just on the work to be done and the people to do it.  So, I didn’t start with VP Engineering and/or CTO and try to define their roles; instead I started with the work to be done and said we need to have people do it.Then for Fred’s point:”A CTO is ideally the strongest technologist in the organization.”I avoided that, too:  Early on (B) the CEO is the “strongest technologist” because he is the only “technologist” and is doing all the work.  Of course, I have no patience with the CEO not being a plenty ‘strong technologist’.  When (A) there are 100 technical people and several technical VPs, each of these technical persons should be about the “strongest technologist” in their job with no concern about who is “the strongest technologist in the organization.”.For the issue of VP Engineering versus CTO, that issue is just in the time from (B) to (A) so not so important.  Moreover, I avoided saying which should report to the other by just saying that any or all technical managers should report directly to the CEO:  In each case they are doing work that the CEO did before and now is delegating to them; so, it’s fully reasonable that the person receiving the work from the CEO should report to the CEO.Or how to handle the time from (B) to (A):  We start with (B), the CEO with traction and revenue (or equity funding) enough to start hiring people to do larger versions of what he did by himself.  So, maybe he hires a few software engineers.  Maybe later he promotes one of them to VP Software to handle, say, all of prototype and production software and server and database system management.  So if that VP has some questions about parallelism for SQL Server, then, assuming the CEO doesn’t know, the VP calls for expert support from Microsoft.  If he has some questions about virtual machines on the 32 core, 2 TB main memory HP servers, then he calls HP for some expert technical support.  So, that’s some of how that VP gets by as a ‘technologist’ in the intermediate period.  Or, in (B) the CEO did it all; now the VP is only being asked to do a larger version of only some of it.  As the versions grow, that VP has his job responsibilities split until the organization converges to the several technical VPs I mentioned.When anyone — software engineer, VP Engineering, CEO — needs to know more in ‘technology’, then he gets that knowledge or has the CEO hire someone with that knowledge.So, the organization and its expertise in ‘technology’ just grows with the work to be done; for the needed knowledge, people get that as they need it or the CEO hires someone with that knowledge.  E.g., how to use several high end Cisco Ethernet LAN switches for high performance, high reliability, high fault tolerance, and rapid growth?  Early on, won’t need to know this!  When do need to know this, for the first step call Cisco!Thus through (A), there’s never a time when a CTO is needed.For “bootstrapping”, I don’t see much alternative:  If the business is well planned and going well, then it should throw off enough free cash for good organic growth.  Successful entrepreneurs have been executing such growth for centuries.  From all I can tell, equity funding will be available only when it is not needed or nearly so.”And for those companies, it is a wise to have a head of technology that can chew gum, scratch his tummy, pick his nose, and walk all at the same time.”  At (B), that’s the CEO.  At (A), all that work has been divided among several VPs.  As the company grows between (B) and (A), each VP keeps getting his job split. 

  29. Dave W Baldwin

    Thanks for the post and thanks to everyone for the comments.  Truly hard to wear both hats, so the trust/understanding between the CT and VP is very important when the split comes.

  30. Chris Kenst

    Crystal clear example. I’d always wandered about the difference.

  31. Josh Engroff

    this is completely on the money, in my experience. Your CTO and your VP of Engineering are going to be different people at some point along your startup’s trajectory.

  32. lunarmobiscuit

    This explanation completely matches my startup experiences, where I often started doing both jobs (plus the job of dev team), then migrated to the above CTO role.Not to get hung up on titles, but this distinction seemed clearer and better understood when in the past I used the “Chief Architect” title rather than CTO  Although in those cases outsiders and investors often then had issues acknowledging that role as peer to the other CxO’s.

  33. Robert Thuston

    Great minds think alike.  M Suster talked about this a while back.I effing love Mark Suster for his operations knowledge.  He nails it when it comes to operating, motivating employees, and getting shit done.  He’s got the edge it takes to run a business, and it’s appreciated from an entrepreneurs perspective to see him as an investor.He’s the kind of guy I want on my side when going into battle.

  34. Bryan Cantrill

    Great post! This — along with Brad Feld’s piece on the same topic — should be clarifying to those who wish to understand these similar (but distinct!) roles.  That said, I do feel there’s something of a risk of a false dichotomy here — one that would at its most extreme have the CTO just thinking high thoughts and the VP of Engineering left with the quotidian task of sullying them with reality.  Specifically, I think it’s important to clarify where innovation comes from organizationally:  in a high-octane startup, ideas — great, big, world-changing visionary ones — will come from all parts of the engineering organization.  Indeed, it is the joint responsibility of the CTO and the VP of Engineering to establish a culture (CTO) and team (VP of Engineering) that feels empowered to think big. It’s the CTO’s job to embrace these ideas, explore them, embolden them, expand upon them and communicate them upwardly and (especially) outwardly; it’s the VP of Engineering’s job to embrace these ideas, explore them, embolden them, enhance them, and distill them into shipping product or a deployed system.  That is, both the CTO and the VP of Engineering play critical (and broadly similar) roles in the organization’s innovation — but they do not neatly divide it nor do they together monopolize it.

  35. Eric

    For the topic I would add that VP Eng = VP R&D, a which I am seeing is a much more common title in start-ups.

  36. Robert DiLoreto

    One of the most important CTO attributes is to also have customer-facing skills…meaning that they should have a strong and effective comfort zone in being able to present to and speak with “C-Suite” prospect executives regarding the product / technology road-map, how the prospect’s “voice” can be strategic in adding future capabilities, etc.  It’s not just about the product/technology and an effective CTO can take part in select “big deal” prospect presentations to reinforce the “emotional” elements of why the prospect should buy and partner.

  37. Antonio Meić

    Reading article … Reading comments … So different opinions, so much arguments. Most of them true.CTO as any CXO role in company is like tissue that binds all things that organism called ORGANIZATION has (assets) to excel on the road to success. He cant work alone, running company is team sport, and trying to describe CTO vs VP engineering role, yes that is comparable on some level. Compassion itself is not applicable in real world in general. Unless you compare case by case.

  38. fredwilson

    I dont understand why that would be an issue

  39. Dale Allyn

    I know a company in which there is a VP of Engineering and no CTO. He is very well known, built big systems, published a great book, etc. The rest of the founding team is well known as well. I won’t be surprised if there’s no CTO for some time, if ever. Labels are being blurred in some areas (which I think is good). The meat is in the delivered goods IMO. 

  40. Rohan

    I think you will have @JamesHRH:disqus on you for this one, Charlie. ;)I got it from him last week for making similar distinctions between CFO and VP Finance. haha

  41. Rohan

    Hehe. Agree. I was just kidding.