The CTO Role


(Note this is a point-in-time article. I do still think the roles of CTO, VP of Engineering, and other related roles should be defined by the company and its needs more than what people think should be true.)

The CTO Role

Defining the role of CTO can be tricky. Each company has a different experience with their CTO, and so the role can be murky at times.

The CTO is often viewed as at least the spiritual leader for the technology organization. That person defines technical strategy and direction, and delivers the the tools and products the organization needs to be successful. But how?

Some industry CTOs are the most technical person in the organization. Some are the ones who can connect business opportunity to technical execution. Some are leaders of people, shapers of process, and technical recruiters in chief.

I spent a fair amount of time reading about the role of the CTO, especially in consideration with the role of VP of Engineering. Most writers’ experience has been that CTOs they’ve worked with have been technical masterminds, hacking new, interesting ways of solving problems. Those CTOs are also described as visionaries, sharing the direction of the product with Board members, customers, and the broader external audience.

Those same writers believe that a VP of Engineering is the lead internal-facing role. Recruiting, training, advancing, and transitioning staff. Structuring process and execution. Defining and shaping the team that delivers on the CTO’s vision.

Only one writer even suggested that a combination of the two was possible, and thought that that person must be a unicorn.

Well, I suppose I’m a unicorn.

Over my 17 years in technical leadership roles, I’ve found that I naturally manage all those roles above. Not only am I consistently one of the most technical people on staff, but I also focus on personnel and process strategy that delivers results. I am passionate about the products I build, and my organizations have never stumbled for a lack of technology. I naturally connect business strategy to technology vision, and create systems and structures based on people that drive value and success.

In short, my personal style isn’t best served by separating out a singular VP of Engineerning.

So, this is how I see my role:

Mission: Enable us to succeed by delivering the best possible technology.

I do this by delivering on 3 key areas of focus: Company and product strategy, people strategy, and technical strategy.

Company and Product Strategy:

  • Business strategy, vision
    • Connecting mission to time-bound visions
    • Organization structure to deliver on vision
    • Operating structure to support the organization
  • Product strategy to deliver on mission
    • Market adoption
    • Revenue strategy
    • Roadmap
    • Success definition and measurement
  • Financial management
    • Budgeting & managing to budget
    • Fundraising & due diligence
    • M&A - strategy, technical review and integration

People Strategy:

  • Tech, Product, Design Organization structures
    • Team plans
    • Staffing levels
    • Roles & responsibilities
    • Operational processes
  • Talent management
    • Sourcing, recruiting, and hiring
    • Growth & development
    • Performance management
    • Transitioning people out

Technical Strategy:

  • Systems architecture
    • Services definition & communication patterns
    • Data flows
  • Technology capabilities
    • Foundational technologies and frameworks
    • Libraries and third-party software strategy
    • “What should we use, why, and how?”
    • New capabilities research & development
  • Stability & Performance
    • Infrastructure reliability
    • Maintenance
    • Ongoing operations
  • Risk management
    • Risk identification and mitigation
    • Quality engineering

Certainly this scope is large, and managing it requires an excellent team! I thrive by building teams and enabling them to support our shared mission. I rely heavily on capable professionals who own elements of these items above deeply.

I tend to operate best when I have these direct reports:

Functional Area leaders:

  • These are usually Director-level roles, but sometimes are VPs.
  • These individuals own and define what is great in a functional area, such as python or quality engineering, or infrastructure operations.
  • It is these individuals’ jobs to define what is good and to hire and develop their staffs.
  • Because my organizations are cross-functional, these people must communicate regularly with each other to help our collective team grow a thrive. Continued alignment activities to ensure we are moving together with one vision are crucial.

Specialised Individual Contributors:

  • I often also promote non-managing leaders who own a key element of process or strategy.
  • Examples:
    • Leaders when a department is small (Agile Coaching for example - I tend to only have a handful of strong ICs who rotate through teams and coach on process evolution)
    • Advanced technical individual contributors who can own architecture across large areas of the system

I believe management starts to lose effectiveness when one person has more than 7 direct reports, so I try to restructure my organization when that starts to happen.

Given all of the above, I don’t tend to operate with a general VP of Engineering. I find the confusion in general expectations of how the roles play together to be detrimental to outcomes. At least, I haven’t yet encountered scale sufficient to support it, and I didn’t foresee that need when I’ve considered planning organizations of up to 150 individuals.

What do you think? What structures have worked well for you?

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