Tech co-founder: CTO or VP Engineering?

As a startup grows from a few people into 30+, there is no role that is more prone to change than that of the tech co-founder. And managing that change correctly is key to the success of the company.

The issue can be framed by first describing the early role of the tech co-founder (TCF): a jack of all trades, the guy/gal who gets the stuff made. The process goes as follows: the founding team brainstorms, the tech head says yeah ok we can do that but not this, and if we try that it would be cool, and it’ll be out in 3 months. And s/he goes to work and figures out everything necessary to make it happen. By a startup’s own definition he or she is bootstrapping, cutting corners, removing superfluous processes just to get to the goal of releasing something that does the job.
The tech co-founder — let’s assume he’s male for simplicity — operates for a couple of years in this mode, part hacker, part strategist, part developer, part designer. His team is tiny, his resources ridiculously constrained, and he’s down in the bloody trenches slugging it out mano a mano.

But then the unthinkable happens: it worked! The product came out, investors got excited, and the company landed a significant funding round. So it started hiring. And growing. And it now employs 30 people. And things start breaking down. Features get delayed. Bug count explodes. The other founders are looking at the techie with vitriol in their eyes. Did we hook up with the wrong guy? Was he not qualified enough? Is he just a small time hacker not ready for the big leagues? On and on… Where in fact the fundamental issue is that the techie was forced to become bipolar. On one side he’s the visionary helping steer the company through tech innovations, and on the other he’s the chap running an overloaded tech team pulled in half a dozen directions. Often the CEO doesn’t even realize that there are two sides to the tech co-founder, or thinks that’s just part of one job, given that he was doing it fine for a couple of years already. The thing though is that it doesn’t scale at all, and the breaking point is when the company reaches the stage where it needs a middle management layer.

So the tech co-founder must, absolutely and unequivocally, choose his or her path: CTO or VP Engineering. And hire right away the person to fill the other position. And be able to explain to his founding partners the new state of affairs, and why the other person is necessary for the continued growth of their startup. Or simply point them to this post. Here’s a quick cheat sheet of how CTO and VP Engineering differ:

A CTO is:

  • A strategist who brings the tech innovation angle to executive discussions
  • An articulate and convincing executive
  • An architect of global enterprise systems
  • The bridge between business and engineering
  • The spark of R&D

A VP Engineering is:

  • A stellar technology team leader and manager
  • A detail-oriented master of process and deliverables
  • An expert in best practices of computer engineering
  • Obsessed with quality
  • Prioritizing reliability over the new shiny tech

I personally never could aspire to become a VP Engineering, but I was a pretty good CTO. I am just not a process guy and there’s no way I could ship anything I didn’t completely design — from needs to features to functional specs — on time. I was really lucky to have paired up with some amazing Engineering heads over the years, and they’ve saved my bacon more times than I can count (here’s looking at you, Martin).

So make sure the tech co-founder knows who she is, or better yet, who she isn’t. It’ll save you all a lot of pain when you start expanding the team.