What are the main differences between CTO vs. VP of Engineering? Both roles work closely together to achieve company goals but have different areas of expertise and focus.
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As you move through your career you may come across managerial positions that on the surface look similar, but as you dig deeper into their roles and responsibilities you’ll find that they have key differences which benefit a company’s growth and goals in different ways. An example of this is the CTO vs. VP of Engineering.
While both these roles deal with technology infrastructure and software development; for example, value stream management; they differ from each other in a handful of key ways.
A CTO (Chief Technology Officer) is the highest technology executive position within a company. The CTO oversees all overarching technology infrastructure while reporting directly to the CEO. The VP of Engineering, however, primarily deals with the management of development teams and preparing and optimizing budgets.
Both the CTO and VP of Engineering oversee various responsibilities, but their roles differ in a few key areas:
The CTO is usually responsible for the thought leadership of a company and directing the technological processes to achieve goals, while the VP of Engineering will be responsible for ensuring the product vision is executed through team leadership and collaboration.
A VP of Engineering will moderate and delegate the development and engineering while the CTO guides the overall technical strategy.
In terms of supervision, the VPE will oversee and directly supervise technical staff and engineering teams. The CTO, on the other hand, will lead smaller groups of engineering management, architects and research engineers.
The CTO will be in charge of the technological direction of a company, as well as the engineering culture and vision. The VPE will build and retain teams of developers, chart progress and contribute to their employees career growth within the company.
A VP of Engineering will plan out the annual budget for the engineering department specifically, while the CTO’s job is to improve the bottom line through innovation, organization and thought leadership.
While the VPE’s main focus will be in people, processes and program management, the CTO will guide overall leadership and most of their work will involve research, revisiting processes and examining tech architecture. For example, researching and managing processes such as Flow Metrics (DORA) to increase efficiency and reduce costs.
The CTO’s main objective is to improve the quality of existing tech processes with an emphasis on deliverables, while the VP of Engineering executes and scales projects to achieve product goals.
The VPE will mainly work internally with engineers and other management teams to develop the company strategy and products. The CTO is the technological leader of the company and will be involved in many customer-facing activities and work closely with the rest of the leadership team – including the CEO.
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The CTO is the technical lead of a company. They hold the highest technology executive position and will be involved with the ongoing innovation and development of new and interesting technologies to keep their company on the cutting edge.
CTOs spend most of their time working with small teams to influence technology strategy and thought leadership. Research is a large part of the role of a CTO, and as one of the faces of the company, the role requires a fair amount of customer-facing speaking engagements. The CTO will report directly to the CEO, and work closely with the VP of Engineering and their teams.
There are a number of skills a CTO needs to be successful in the position. Firstly, they need to have deep knowledge and insight into the protectable technologies and core competencies of the company. They need to also be highly up-to-date on technology advancements, innovations and see how those would benefit existing company processes.
They should also be comfortable in explaining complex concepts to both those within the company and outside of it. The CTO is also in a leadership position and should be comfortable working closely with others executives and guiding directives.
A CTO is responsible for leading a company’s technological advancements. They will work with the VPE to research and implement new software processes or tech in line with the company vision.
Another duty of the CTO is managing a company’s patent portfolio. The goal is to keep the business on the cutting edge of the technology space to ensure its ongoing health and growth. Companies that don’t do this are at risk of becoming dated or obsolete as the tech landscape continues to develop. This is why a CTO is such a valuable member of the company.
So how do you become a Chief Technology Officer? There are many career paths to CTO, especially as the position is very broad and encompasses various skills. Most CTOs have a background in software engineering, architecture, data engineering, or project management.
They will almost always have a bachelor's degree in a field related to computer science. However it takes a long time to become a CTO, and those on the career path will need to have held leadership positions as well as technical roles.
A VP of Engineering is usually brought in as a company grows out of the startup phase when more leadership positions are needed to further recruitment and oversee development teams. The role of the VPE tends to focus on personnel and program management, engineering execution, technical leadership, and strategy development.
They will be involved in all aspects of the development team’s activities, but occupy a managerial role. They will work with the CTO to co-develop technical strategy and will directly supervise teams of staff. The VPE will have a keen understanding of company processes, software artifacts, and the catalogs which make up its architecture.
To make a great VPE, candidates need to have a strong background in engineering, but also exceptional communication skills. They need to be comfortable delegating to a team and have the ability to lead and inspire. When a company is in the startup phase, the CTO might take on the roles and responsibilities of a VPE; which covers everything from cultivating a great team to working with agility principles such as value management streams. As the company grows, the CTO may want to bring on a VPE with the right skills to take over personnel management.
One of the most important responsibilities of a VP of Engineering is the hiring and retention of professionals that have the right skills for the objectives and strategy of the company. They will be responsible for managing their teams and cultivating a culture that supports productive collaboration and initiatives through to on-time completion.
VPEs will need to be in close communication with leadership (including the CTO) and will be responsible for ensuring their teams have the resources and understanding to reach company targets.
Much like that of the CTO, the VP of Engineering's career path is broad and generally encompasses a background in engineering, project management, and architecture. They will have a background of working with and leading DevOps teams and are very comfortable with agile principles such as value stream management and microservices architecture.
As the VPE is an executive position, professionals will need similar experience in senior-level positions at a technology company. Positions that tend to lead to the VP of Engineering role are Senior Software Developers and Engineering Directors.
When considering which position suits your professional growth best, it’s important to consider what responsibilities your personal skill sets line up with best. Both a CTO and the VP of Engineering require an advanced and proven background in software development and history in other senior-level positions.
If you’re comfortable managing people, can inspire confidence, and are goal-oriented, then you might suit the VPE position. If you are more focused on research and overarching company growth, then you may prefer a position as a CTO.
Software development requires adaptive and focused teams. To bring the most value to the company, CTOs and VPEs team up with lean software practitioners and ensure the growth of the company is achieved in the most efficient way.
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