CTO vs. VP of Engineering

In tech companies, startups and large companies alike, of the many roles you need to define, two seem to be particularly confusing to German startups: The CTO and the VP of Engineering role. Many German startups I’ve seen simply have a person titled CTO who does both (and sometimes neither). These two roles are very different! They require different skill sets and while temporarily one person may be able to fill both shoes, longer term they are better filled by two different people. In more detail:

The vice president (VP) of engineering role is a people management role. This VP should have all developers reporting to them. It is their job to use these resources to get the product to market based on the company’s needs. He or she organizes, moderates, and delegates engineering. They spend a lot of time working with people trying to bring the best out in them. In a large company, for example, the VP of Engineering is the person responsible for a transition to agile and / or inner source.

The Chief Technical Officer (CTO) role is a technical leadership role. In a startup, a CTO may not have anyone reporting to them, in a large company they may have a staff of architects, but its size is nothing what a VP of Engineering is responsible for. The CTO resp. the CTO organization is responsible for charting and guiding technical strategy, choosing platforms and integrations. They don’t have any disciplinary responsibility outside their own staff. Therefore, they must work with the VP of Engineering who should lend them his or her power to ensure architectural integrity and strategic direction are maintained.

I’m not sure why German startups merge these two jobs into one, calling it CTO. I suspect the “C” is the reason why it is CTO and not VP, but this doesn’t explain the conflation. Perhaps, at least in the startup situation, it is a result of a or the technical founder assuming both roles and not letting go. But they should. And these two roles should be kept separate, because they are very different and it is hard to find someone who is good at both.

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