CTO/VP Engineering – What’s the Difference?

Mark Suster has an excellent post entitled “Want to Know the Difference Between a CTO and a VP Engineering?”

In his post, Mark discussed both the attributes of a CTO and VPE and when they are needed in a company’s lifecycle. In summary:

  • CTO – visionary, technically astute, not a great people manager
  • VPE – technical (knows how to code), process-oriented (builds, unit tests, automation, schedules) and can manage people

He also has some interesting thoughts from a VC viewpoint regarding about teams that have a consulting firm build their initial product

If you want to build a great technology company, you’ll need a “rockstar” engineering lead.  Every great tech startup needs one.  Whenever I meet a team that had a consulting firm (even a great one) build their product it’s an immediate “pass” from me.  If you don’t have somebody

inside your organization who is setting the technology direction then I’m convinced you’ll never head for greatness.  I know this will fall like a lead balloon to the many people who believe it is possible to have a [insert: startup incubator or technology accelerator or technology consultant or outsource firm] build your technology.  I don’t believe it.  Either your core is innately technical or it’s not.  It’s what makes Google Google and Facebook Facebook.

Mark suggests the proper time to bring in a VPE is when the CTO is managing more than 3 developers.

Based on my experience, I generally agree with Mark, however, I would add a few things:

  1. The VPE *has* to write code when the team is small (less than 10 people). I have been an advisor to two companies where the VPE managed a team of 4-6 people and did not code. They generally were clueless about the architecture, the process of actually getting things done (e.g. where the SVN drop was, how to build, write a unit test, deployment, etc). At a company of this size, the VPE should be a contributing member of the team; in both situations the VPE was ineffective and ended up leaving the company.
  2. Adding a VPE and CTO when the company has 4 or more developers seems really (!) top heavy. Personally, I would expect that the CTO could scale a bit better than that, even if the CEO has to help out with some of the “softer” skills on the people management side.