Software development · Product Development

VP Engineering or CTO. What do we need?

Richard Pridham Investor, President & CEO at Retina Labs

September 1st, 2016

As my company moves to the next stage in its evolution, I'm looking at how best to set up the dev team. We're in the telehealth space and offer solutions for eye care and chronic disease detection and management. We're B2B focused (hospitals, clinics, eye care professionals, etc...). Currently, we're pretty small. We have one senior developer and 3 more junior level programmers in addition to an individual who looks after the cloud infrastructure and the development environment. All these resources are managed by the co-founder who looks after everything product and technology related. While the co-founder has a computer science degree, he's not a software engineer per se. He's a bit of a jack of all trades IT guy. He does know the eye care industry and the company's product platform inside out as he has overseen its design and development since day one. I think the co-founder would be most effective in a "product management" role and to be the conduit between customers and the dev team. Maybe even a role that would include project implementation and oversight. As such, he'd manage the product roadmap. If our plans go reasonably well, the dev team is going to grow. We have ongoing improvements to our mature flagship product and we need to complete some new products that we started. We're also looking at other healthcare market segments for our products, which will require a bit of tweaking. I'm thinking that we need to bring in a seasoned software engineering type who can a) build the team, b) manage the team and c) collaborate with the co-founder to ensure our products meet customer/market needs and achieve competitive differentiation. So, do I need a CTO or a VP Engineering? What's the difference?

Scott Maddux Advisor at DoneBy

September 1st, 2016

What you describe is closer to a VP of Engineering than CTO. The VPE is generally more tactical and very team/productivity focused. The CTO is generally more concerned with long-term technology strategy, architectural decisions, participating in fund-raising (pitching tech story etc.) and helping close tier-1 customer sales.

Ozzie Diaz Strategic Planning at Intel Corporation

September 1st, 2016

As a 3-time CTO and 1-time CEO, you need a VP of Engineering (aka engineering lead) but who rolls up their sleeves, codes and takes support calls. You're too small to worry about a CTO for now. 

E Y

September 1st, 2016

https://bothsidesofthetable.com/want-to-know-the-difference-between-a-cto-and-a-vp-engineering-4fc3750c596b#.dtm0iifse


Eaymon Latif

September 2nd, 2016

Hi Richard,

The way you described your co-founder shows he is already fulfilling the CTO role but doesn't want to be labeled as such. In my past the VP of Engineering has these functions:
  • Oversee multiple teams / projects
  • Define career paths for engineers
  • Staffing/resource planning 
  • Defining process and optimizing on it
  • Plus other high level tasks
Based on your needs it sounds more like a technical manager would be a better fit. Possibly one that could potentially grow into a VP over time.

Benjamin Knauss Member Board of Directors at BeCause For Hope

September 2nd, 2016

Truth be told neither option is correct, you don't need a CTO as your co-founder is filling that role, you don't need a VPE either, as you don't have lots of directors to look after or million dollar budgets to be fretted over.  What you should be staffing is an engineering manager.

Katie Curtin-Mestre B2B Tech Marketing Executive

September 1st, 2016

Based on what you sharing, you might be at the point to need both. From my experience, I have encountered three types of CTOs: product strategy type CTOs, "deep thinker" CTOs, and customer-facing CTOs. To me, a small company cannot really afford a "deep thinker" CTO. Based on what you detailed below, I'd consider shifting your co-founder to a CTO role where he drives product strategy and acts as a company evangelist with prospects, customers, analysts, etc. And hire a VP of Engineering to lead the development team. Finding the right person for that role will be critical. Along with cultural fit, I'd imagine you'd want a VP of Engineering who has architect level skills and can code vs. a "make sure the trains arrive on time" type. Hope this is helpful.

Hugo Troche Software Engineer. Entrepreneur

September 1st, 2016

The CTO is your technical guru. That is person that keeps up with the technology market and understands how to use new technologies to push forward the mission. In a traditional sense the CTO is more of an R&D person with a small staff doing advance project and prototypes. The CTO in conjunction with Marketing and Sales should define the product roadmap.

The VP of Engineering is a manager with technical background. This person will usually have the engineers (if less than 10) or the engineering managers reporting to her. This person makes sure that technical roadmap is executed, that the people that needs to be hired are hired and that the technical team has everything it needs to build and maintain the product.

In most startups while you are small one cofounder is the CTO, VP of Engineering, Director of Engineering and Lead Engineer at the same time. Most entrepreneurial engineers that manage to hack together a product that gains traction adapt well and quickly to the CTO role. Yet, adapting to the VP of Engineering role is harder.

From what you described, you need a VP of Engineering in charge of hiring and managing the technical team and your cofounder takes the CTO role to set technology and product direction.

Nickolay Kolev Freelancer at Private

September 1st, 2016

Your needs sound very tactical and less long-run vision oriented. Also, you are describing more of a CIO than a CTO role (working on more internal vs. external, needs - technology wise).
Why don't you hire a Manager Software Development instead. It will be person who is still hands-on, but at the same time will help you with the project management and strategic planning. A VP or a CTO/CIO are not so much hands-on and depending on your company stage, may be too early to employ such talents.
In case you can afford it, go with a VP. He/she will review your current situation and be much closer to the actual development than a CTO/CIO. You need a VP much earlier as a role than a CTO/CIO. CTO/CIO are C-level executives, more long-run goals and facing external and internal policies, customers, partners and so on.

Kirill Pertsev

September 1st, 2016

CTO is a company officer. His/her job is to figure out technological strategy in all aspects, including hiring, including hiring the VPE, who would be responsible for executing this strategy.
So your question is: do you have technology strategy and if you don't, do you need one?
CTO is not a software engineer on steroids (literally and/or figuratively) but someone who shares your vision and passion and knows (or thinks she/he knows and can convince others) how to change the world/industry with technology.

Rob Rusher Founder Institute Director, Denver Area

September 1st, 2016

You might be better off with a good project manager. The co-founder still sets the direction of the product features and the sr dev (if capable) can lead architecture.
That will get you to the next stage where you can look at higher level tech resources.