The difference between a CTO and a VP Engineering

When a startup is just getting going, oftentimes the hacker/CTO is the only technical guru on board.

As the startup moves past seed stage and starts to hire employees, the hacker/CTO’s role starts to evolve, as he or she goes through a series of leadership transitions. The first transition comes when the hacker finds himself or herself  becoming a first time manager.  As the technical organization continues to grow, a second transition will start to appear.  The work content for the technical leader starts to form two clusters – management work, and technical work.

In the beginning, the hacker/CTO would and should assume both clusters of responsibilities. As the engineering team continues to grow, and the headcount for the company goes past 15 or 20, the project and people management aspects of the job will start to dominate. Eventually the hacker/CTO might realize they are doing a lot of things that they don’t love (e.g. project and people management) and not getting time on the things that they do love (e.g. technical explorations). This is the time when startups ought to begin to think about bringing on a VP of Engineering.

While there are many ways to implement the CTO role versus the VP Engineering role, as the startup scales past 20 people, the roles tend to settle down into two patterns. This article explains what each role looks like in small tech companies with engineering staff from 20-200 people.

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