Many startups give the CTO title to their technical lead. We think that’s a mistake. There is an organic way to grow engineering teams and there are different leadership skills needed at different sizes. Because of this, titles have become quite confusing.

We’ve also seen that founders will give inflated titles to certain team members as a way to entice them to the team. While this is a creative way to retain top talent, it can lead to trouble down the road. Certain titles on a resume convey mastery over specific skills.

The Evolution of Technical Roles with Steve Tauber, our fire-fighting CTO, on Pulse, our podcast.

What exactly are the differences between a technical lead, head of development, engineering manager, VP of Engineering (VPoE), and CTO (Chief Technology Officer)? Keep reading to find out.

The founding of a team: technical lead

Often when a team starts, there is an idea that a team wants to build. A business co-founder and a technical co-founder join forces together in the most common scenario. At some point, they'll need to grow.

Perhaps they've gotten lucky, or maybe they invested in product management research. After all, when analyzing failed startups, the number one missing capability identified by founders (34% of the time) was “the ability to deliver a specific solution for a specific problem, product-market fit.”

When it comes time to expand the team, a couple of new engineers join. This is the first opportunity for the technical co-founder to receive a new title. Are they still writing code on a day-to-day basis and acting as a technical mentor and authority? They are very likely a lead engineer or technical lead.

Does it go beyond that? Are they also setting processes and performing people management? If so, then Head of Development may be a better title. Before you hand out that title, make sure they want to manage and lead on the people-side. Many technical founders would prefer to let someone else handle that so that they can focus on what they love, coding.

The Head of Development role can also imply that they are responsible for some product decisions. Sometimes product managers will be working directly alongside engineers, embedded in the same pod or squad. At other times, product will sit alongside engineering and work as a sister-group. In other cases, the responsibility might fully belong to the Head of Product.

Teams of teams: VPoE

The startup continues to find success due to their data-driven approach and tight feedback loops. Soon, the technical team is composed of 3 pods of 3 engineers. Each pod is highly focused on a particular task and can ship vertically. They are able to self-organize since they are responsible developers.

At this point, perhaps that technical founder has continued to grow their skills. Now, they are focused on building teams that build products. No longer is their priority to know every line of code. They have graduated to the role of VPoE.

A VPoE (Vice President of Engineering) is internally focused on the tactical execution of a strategy.

Enter strategy: CTO

But who sets the strategy? How does the CTO build a team? This is where the lines blur. In small teams, the role is often shared, or perhaps no one is really taking on this responsibility. Or maybe your company has a Fractional CTO?

If the company does have a dedicated CTO, this is their core responsibility. They should be outwards-facing, thinking about strategy, and working with VPs of Engineering and VPs of Product to ship quality work. The CTO is focused on leading teams of teams. Please note that the role of the CTO is ever-evolving.

As a note, it might be that your organization has Product parallel to Engineering. In this case, a CPO would oversee VPs of Product and any product managers. Some teams like to keep these folks directly engaged with engineering. What’s important is the dynamic that exists between the teams. They should be working collaboratively on deliver a solution together, as opposed to a group of workers directing and another group executing.

Want to find out more about hiring a CTO? We've got you covered!

What’s the difference between a CEO and a CTO?

A CEO is very similar to a CTO. Both work together to develop a strategy. Perhaps they use an established framework such as Roger L. Martin’s Playing to Win. Once the goal is set, execution is handed to COOs, VPoEs, and VPoPs to make that vision a reality. (As a note, COOs are usually also involved in strategic discussions, too).

What’s the difference between a CEO and a CTO?

In larger companies, the CTO’s role continues to develop, and an Office of the CTO can be created. This is when the CTO works directly with developers (hackers) to perform research into technology trends so they can continue to push back the strategic horizon and keep a pulse on the newest innovations and buzzwords.

An alternate evolution: Engineering management

I haven't mentioned engineering management yet. It’s a role that focuses on the people management of engineers. It’s often (but not always) non-technical, so other team members can focus on the job's technical aspect.

This is often coupled with technical leads handling the oversight of the developers from an engineering perspective. This is how many larger companies organize their teams. It allows deeply technical people to continue to focus on what they do best. The people management responsibilities are then shifted to others with a different skill set.

Of course, a technical engineering manager is a major asset to the team since they’ll be able to better manage the developers. Many engineering managers start as individual contributors but migrate to the business's more people and process-oriented side.

How you decide to organize your team is ultimately up to you. Help your team organize themselves by empowering them to decide who has authority, responsibility, and autonomy to make process-, technical-, and people-focused decisions. After all, a title is a title, but all the roles still need to be covered.