Brad Feld has a thought provoking blog post about the roles of CTO and VP Engineering. Todd Vernon CEO of Lijit also shared his views on the topic. Should they be combined? Do they require different skills? Can one person do both? etc. My view is while they might be combined early in a company's life, they are seperate roles and require much different skills.
VP of Engineering
There are lots of strong management and leadership skills the VP Eng job requires. Planning, defining development processes, leading and growing individuals, teams and leaders, balancing quality goals and project timelines, staffing and recruiting, and a lot more. While those are the fundamentals, and they are very important, there are other traits that a highly valuable VP Eng brings.
Most importantly, the VP Eng is there to help the development organization learn how to deliver consistently over multiple product releases (and products, if they have multiple products.) That starts with the very first release the team does. Even if everyone has released a product before (which usually isn't the case), doing it together as a team is a learning experience. That expands into creating the learned processes the organization needs to do this over multiple releases. Over time these processes become part of the organization's knowledge so it can be repeated, measured and improved. Another important aspect of the role is measurement. Deciding what to measure, how improvement goals are set, and how learning from those experiences is infused into the organization. Managing scope is probably the third most important aspect of the role. Keeping scope under control (both externally and internally), managing change, and making sure what's delivered is relevant is a responsibility the VP Eng shares with others on the exec team and product management.
Engineering - A Company's Biggest Enabler
The best VP Eng's truly enable the rest of the company by creating a reliable product delivery capability. I like to say, as goes Engineering, so goes the rest of the company. Many of the teams I've worked with across multiple companies have heard me say at one time or another, engineering's ability to deliver is the biggest enabler a product company can have. My experiences are that it really is true, and it does have a huge impact across multiple business functions, in ways many technical staff members don't always realize or see.
When product development meet commitments and delivers quality products, sales is much more aggressive about putting their name on the line for the company and products. Marketing is confident and more aggressive in what they communicate to the market, what they pitch to media and analysts, and how they go after customers. And technical support has increased confidence in products, even when they don't work as advertised, knowing there's a strong team behind them that not only fixes problems but seeks out the root causes and fixes systemic and process issues. When this isn't the case, the organization hesitates. Sales is less aggressive, afraid to put relationships or their integrity on the line. Other parts of the company will hold back with a Missouri "show me" attitude before taking action. It makes such a fundamental difference to the company and the financial results when product teams deliver. I've had my share of both successes and failures. Probably where I learned this fist was while I was VP Eng at Jato Communications. When engineering cranked out high quality product consistently, the organization had this high energy, positive buzz. When you are in the VP Eng role, the impact the organization has on the company is much clearer than it might be working inside the development organization. Bottom line for anyone, it's a lot more fun and rewarding to be part of successful product teams.
The CTO role has much different dynamics. The CTO wears multiple hats, ranging from strategy to acting as a leading "pitchman" to media, analysts and customers. The way I've thought of my role as CTO was to be like James Burke in the BBC series Connections. Its about combining what you and the organization knows about the market, customers needs, technology, trends, current problems, and then thinking differently about how your company can uniquely create competitive and useful solutions within the event horizons of your business. That means working with other business and technical leaders to create a shared vision, set the agenda for the company's products and services, and then continuously questioning how you can be the best in the market at what you do.
Alan Kay, Apple Fellow and Xerox PARC research (and one of my technical heroes), once described research as like playing baseball. You'd be thrilled with a .300 hitting average. Being CTO means trying a lot ideas, learning quickly from failures, bouncing ideas off of co-workers and experts, knowing when to call quits on one idea and move to the other, and finding opportunities in the margins where other's aren't looking. Doing this must happen both within the context of the business, but it also has to be done knowing the markets, the competition and what's happening outside the company.
The pitchman role is about clarity, making sure the message about the company's strategy, products and announcements hit the mark with media, analysts and customers. This often means working very closely with marketing and sales to help shape positioning, messaging and marketing plans. Selling, not just representing the company, is also important so you must be part salesperson to do the role effectively. Of course there's the technical aspect of the role. Depending on the company, the CTO may also be a kind of chief scientist or play a very strong technical role in the product's technology but rarely do they spend most of their time as a developer.
VP Eng, CTO, and Both
I've been fortunate to play both roles. Probably the two largest VP Eng roles were rolling out a 450+ POP (COs and Colo) broadband network, and leading a team of 200+ developing video-on-demand, shopping, games, and Internet services. Those jobs were about execution and being very disciplined about delivering consistently over a long period of time. I couldn't imaging trying to also play a CTO role in those situations.
My longest stint as a CTO has been in my current job. Sometimes it's been a pure CTO role, and at other times it has been a mixture of CTO and development manager. When called upon to do both, I've actually found it very challenging to do both at the same time. On the one hand you have a foot in the future of where the company or product needs to go. You're very focused on the business and externally. Then you are trying to keep other other foot solidly in the day to day of delivering product. That's a tough balancing act to perform. I've found myself shifting focus from one to the other, and then back again, because it's difficult to do both equally all the time. I really enjoy building and working with high performance teams so I never regret getting to work with a highly talented team that delivers. That part of the VP Eng role has always attracted me. I love to help members of the team succeed and grow. I also think I'm best when I'm in a more creative role that's more heavily involved with the business, working closely with the CEO, sales, marketing, customers, and the technical teams. I enjoy working with all parts of the business and that's usually a very important part of what a CTO does.
I do think combining the two roles can be done when you are starting a new product or a new team but ultimately product delviery needs a different kind of focus than most CTOs can offer on a sustained basis. Most importantly, I value all the roles I've had in past, present and future. You gain valuable experiences from each of them, and learn something about yourself and your craft in the process.