We are often asked by Founders and CEO’s what is the right “style” of engineering leader to hire for our business? The answer is never straightforward as every business is different. How we think about it is more in terms of; what will that person help the organisation achieve?
First some definitions with the caveat that titles are very misleading and putting things in ‘buckets’ is rarely neat. So broadly speaking we define the CTO, VP of Engineering and Technical Lead positions as follows:
CTO = Executive role
VP Engineering = People Leadership role
Technical Lead = Technical Leadership role
Functionally all three can be similar in a startup in that they can be hands on, managing a team, sitting on the executive team and running the end to end engineering organisation. At Think & Grow we define each role based on the outcomes they produce and not role title:
A CTO is an executive role that will:
- Develop technology strategy aligned with business strategy
- Lead and manage the engineering group
- Help with P&L management
A VP Engineering will:
- Improve cadence / speed of delivery
- Improve engineering quality
- Define and improve engineering culture
A Technical Lead will:
- Contribute code regularly
- Technically guide the engineering group
- Help define engineering practices
There are advantages and disadvantages to each role type. But the phase that each role is hired in a business tends to be quite different. So when should each role by hired?
Often a business can get away with a Technical Lead when the engineering group is no more than 10 engineers, the team does not require too much man management or organisation and as a result the engineering leaders role is more about leading architectural decisions and contributing code themselves.
VP of Engineering:
The VP of Engineering role is brought in once the engineering group cannot be managed and led by a single individual, as a result delivery has now become more complex as a number of squads are required (rather than one single entity). The role is about how you get these different teams to work together.
As the company has grown engineering has grown into a significant part of the organisation, the organisation itself has become more complex. What is apparent is that engineering is a key driver of growth but commercial decisions are being made that disadvantage the engineering org. As a result engineering needs someone to represent it at an executive level.
I just want to reiterate that the definitions above are generalization’s but what we do believe is vital is that engineering and organisational growth go hand in hand.