What’s the difference between a CTO and a VP Engineering?
– People, all over the place.
I get this question a lot.
The biggest misconception is that it’s all about the money - that being a VPE is just a step towards being a CTO, a rung in the ladder. This is entirely wrong, and it’s a mistake that hurts companies and employees. The differences between the two roles, and the type of person that excels in each, is huge.
A CTO is an outward facing role. CTOs are tasked with setting the technical vision of a company and evangelizing that vision to the rest of the world. A good CTO has vision and charisma, and should be expected to speak regularly to both the internal team, and at external conferences.
CTO’s Don’t Lead Teams.
Having experience as a VPE before becoming a CTO is helpful, but completely unnecessary. However, having strong opinions about the future of technology, and extensive speaking experience is a must.
A VP of Engineering, on the other hand, is a much more hands-on, personal and tactical role.
VPEs are responsible for ensuring that the engineering team continues to hum along at a good pace. They guide the technical architecture of the product, the team organization, and short-to-medium-term technology direction. They have a personal relationship with every engineer and can make the best use of each individuals strengths.
A good VPE can lead teams of hundreds of developers.
The Right Role for You
This division of labor is a pattern. Once you know to look for it, you see it everywhere. CEO vs COO, President and Vice President, Picard and Riker.
It’s incredibly rare to find someone who has the skills or the time to tackle all of running the day-to-day aspects of an organization and act as the public facing visionary.
But be careful – these lines blur all the time. Many companies hire for one when they actually want the other. More importantly, many people see themselves as Robert Crawley when they’d be much happier as Mr Carson.