CTO · Engineering management

When do you need a lead developer vs a VP of Engineering?

Rohit Mittal Data Scientist at Popsugar

May 28th, 2014

I was going through this article from Fred Wilson that talks about CTOs vs VPs of Engineering. But it strikes me that at the very beginning of a company and for the first year or so you really need a lead developer.  I wanted to better understand from other entrepreneurs if you a) agree with that assessment and b) how you characterize the difference between Lead Developer and VP Engineering?

Michael Barnathan Adaptable, efficient, and motivated

May 28th, 2014

I think of it this way: Lead Developers build software, while VPs of Engineering build teams and strategy. There's usually some overlap in the beginning, and my advice is to aim for someone who has the ability to both build and strategize if you can find such a person.

Todd Ellermann Experienced I.T. Leader, CTO, and Creative Entrepreneur

May 29th, 2014

I find this characterization in the article to be naive and misleading, and has nothing to do with startups.  In fact, its blind characterization being applied to all size and types of businesses is just one of the ways it is grossly lacking.  

For startups you need either a) technical founder (title Founder or CTO) OR b) technical advisor + lead software engineer OR c) technical advisor + outsourcing + <best engineer you can afford>

There is no such thing as a VP of engineering at a startup, nor is there a CIO, unless the startup is overfunded and doomed.

At a startup your Technical person has these responsibilities: 
1) Strategy of technology of product or strategy of product if product is technical in nature
2) Building/Execution (writing code)
3) Dev Ops (setting up everything to do #2)
4) Operations (including infrastructure (email, wiki, reporting etc..)) including waking up when there is a problem
5) Hiring
6) Vendor Selection and Management (to fill gaps for 2, 3, and 4 so he/she can focus on 1, 2 and 5)
7) [OPTIONAL] Product Management  (spec writing, or at least Story identification)

As companies grow or depending on how central the technology is to the business 4-6 are handed off to the CIO or IT manager whatever.

CTO and VP of engineering become synonyms with only a few minor nuances when a startup is acquired by a larger company.  A senior most technical leader of a division, product, line of business, business unit, is typically given the title VP of Engineering. While the CTO is the top most technical leader for the parent company. Some companies find technology to be secondary to their business, and in this case may not have a CTO but may rely on a "CIO" or a VP of Engineering to be the senior most technology decision maker.



May 28th, 2014

The difference is in the network of the respective individuals -- reiterating what Michael said, a VP can draw on past engagements and bring key people in quickly and build out a team that will gel. A lead developer doesn't necessarily have this capability or experience, and doesn't need to if the goal is an MVP. You don't need a VP until you have a mandate to add people and ramp up velocity, add features, scale. This means the codebase is more mature and planning division of work is key.

Nirmal Shah | Co-Founder RockON | Managing Director TESCRA |

May 29th, 2014

Todd is right. In a startup, there is really no VP of anything. You get your VPs and Directors once you grow past the startup stage. At best, if the founder is a technical/engineering person, then she or he becomes the VP of engineering, CTO, even lead developer - all in one. At this stage, job titles don't mean anything - and if people want to join you for a job title, think twice before hiring them.

With my startup, we have a team of 11, including two co-founders, and there is no 'lead' developer. There are engineers - the people with more experience or knowledge tend to take the lead, but again, titles don't matter. 

Everyone we hired was told that they have to 'work' - get their hands dirty, code, handle release management, set up infrastructure, research tools, platforms etc. Isn't that actually the fun part of being with a startup ? 

Simply said, startups usually don't have the luxury of a hierarchy and shouldn't even need one.

Harshit Rastogi

May 30th, 2014

A dev with expertise to convert you idea to a product and believes in your idea as much you do. 

The title doesn't matter , i have seen young dev building great tools and managing as VP or CTO after few years. 


May 28th, 2014

I am of the opinion that titles and labels for the founding members of a startup are vestigal. Those titles you listed are appropriate for big companies that have well established hierarchies and processes. But stargtups are a different beast. In a startup you ned a tech guy who can get sh** done. Period. You can call them whatever title you want. My perspective on this is inspired by Steve Blank's writing.

Will Koffel Co-Founder at Outlearn

May 29th, 2014

You need a lead developer, but one that you can TRUST.  That may inherently make them the kind of developer who will grow into a CTO or a VP Engineering role as your company gets larger.

But if the lead developer sets the wrong tone, picks the wrong tools, builds the wrong engineering culture, starting on day 1, that will be hard to undo.

Don't settle on a developer who can code, but not communicate, even if they aren't interested or capable of becoming the long-term technical executive for the business.

Graeham Ford-Feliz CEO at Emergent Coast

May 28th, 2014

Michael hit it on the head - took the words out of my mouth ;)

Trey Stout CTO at Gracious Eloise Inc.

May 29th, 2014

The article you're referring to is excellent. I've seen really large shops where the VP of engineering and the CTO are peers under the CEO.  I like to use construction analogies for software too much but here goes nothing...

Say you're building a shopping mall...
the VP of engineering would hire the electrical engineers, someone to pour the foundation, choose a drywall vendor etc...

The CTO would figure out what the future of shopping malls is in this market or maybe internationally. He would draft alternate layouts of malls maybe optimizing for foot traffic, or time in the mall. He understands how drywall is put up, but he mostly leaves that to the VP to decide and is a sounding board.

Small teams need someone who can do both of these roles, but most solid engineers you would consider for this can straddle that line for a long time. Only when the team gets large enough does the separation start to make sense.

Mark Watkins Founder, The Hawaii Project

June 1st, 2014

(An upvote for Brian and Michael's answers)

A path that's often seen in successful startups is that the "CTO" (I agree the formal titles are not the point) comes in first, lays down the product and technology framework, and gets to a first product, and the "VP of engineering" comes in later.

In a small startup, the CEO / founder / cofounder will be intimately involved in the product for some period of time. At some point, the CEO will be (or should be) heavily focused on out-bound activities (selling, marketing, raising money, etc). And often CTOs do not have interest in the "people" and "process" part of managing and growing a team. When your CEO is outbound most of the time and the CTO isn't or doesn't want to deal with the team aspects (hiring, firing, growing, leading, mentoring, settling disputes, dealing with compensation issues, etc etc) - it's time to get a VP of Engineering.

But all this depends on the people - some "CTOs" make great "VP of Engineering", and a tech-oriented CEO can do it for a time. The thing to look at is whether the vital activities are getting the attention they need.

(by way of background I have been both VP of engineering and CEO at various times).