VP of Engineering vs. CTO – The Difference and Why It Matters

CTO vs VP EngRewind two years ago and I thought that a CTO and a VP Engineering were two ways to describe the same position within a company. Fast forward to today and I have learned that these are actually two very different people with different skill sets, personality types, and roles within a company. I think Mark Suster, startup founder turned Venture Capitalist (Upfront Ventures) does a great job of describing each of these roles:

“first and foremost a VP of Engineering is a people manager” (Mark Suster, Want to know the difference between a CTO and a VP of Engineering?)

That’s right, a VP of Engineering is, at her core, a people manager, someone who doesn’t just have solid engineering chops but also knows how manage and motivate people. A good VP of Engineering should inspire your team to write great code and not dread coming to work. A CTO on the other hand:

I believe that every great technology startup has the technology visionary inside the company.  This is the person who lays the foundation of what should be built.  They’re up to date on the latest platform decisions whether it’s understanding Spring, Hibernate and Lucene.  Or whether it’s a big data set problem and they’re familiar with Cassandra or Hadoop.  Or whether it’s a choice between using MySQL vs. Postgres. (Mark Suster, Want to know the difference between a CTO and a VP of Engineering?)

While both the CTO and VP of Engineering are both engineers and together will help set the “engineering culture” within your organization, the CTO is the technology visionary, the person who doesn’t mind getting into the weeds and going deep on the technology side. While the VP of Engineering is keeping the team unified and moving forward, the CTO is making sure that the code that is being written is in the right language, using the right libraries, databases, and always looking ahead and trying to live in a fully formed future.

Fred Wilson, a Venture Capitalist from Union Square Ventures has this to say about the two roles:

A VP Engineering is ideally a great manager and a great team builder. He or she will be an excellent recruiter, a great communicator, and a great issue resolver. The VP Eng’s job is to make everyone in the engineering organization successful and he or she needs to fix the issues that are getting in the way of success.

A CTO is ideally the strongest technologist in the organization. He or she will be an architect, a thinker, a researcher, a tester and a tinkerer. The CTO is often the technical co-founder if there is one (and you know I think there must be one). (Fred Wilson,VP Engineering vs CTO)

So while it could be easy to say, “I just need to hire a CTO or VP Eng” – it’s important to understand that you’ll rarely find someone who will excel at both roles as they really are two very different things, the question is what do you need the most at this stage in your company?

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