VP Engineering vs. CTO Role

Posted on Categories Business, Startup, Technology

I came across a very interesting video that has the CTO/founder (Jason Hoffman) and VP Engineering (Bryan Cantrill) of Joyent talking about their roles. It provided a unique perspective specifically of the VP Engineering role and their relationship with a CTO.

Here is the 40 min video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAHItZ1cSNM

I have summarized the video below, but the presentation is valuable to watch as it puts the story together well. 

Jason and Bryan believe that CTO’s fail when they think they are engineers and VP Engineers fail when they think they are managers of people and not creators of things. 

Typically it is thought that the CTO is more of a technical visionary and where innovation comes from and the VP engineering is more of a people orientated role. At Joyent (a cloud hosting company) they take a different approach and feel that the CTO should be as technical as required to validate a vision, set the technical culture, and be largely outward facing to understand the relationship of the technology and the outer world. 
The VP Engineering is responsible for the development and delivery of the product, recruitment of the team and should be the best developer on the team. 

When the company size is under 5-10 people it can done by one person, but beyond that a separation needs to happen. 

Innovation then comes from a culture that is empowered to think big. It is not the role of one person (CTO or VP eng) to be singularly responsible for innovation. CTO and VP Eng must as a team embrace ideas, explore and expand on them. The CTO must communicate these ideas upward and outward and the VP Eng must distill them into shipping product.

CTO Role

What they are responsible for 

  • Must be as technical as required to validate the vision and culture (i.e. Ensures that the vision of the company can actually be done)
  • Sets the technical culture
  • Needs to understand the relationship between the technology and the outside world
  • Be largely outward facing and sales support
  • Does not own the delivery of the product
  • Ensures that the rest of the company and the board knows what is going on

Anti Patterns

  • Can not be critiquing the VP engineering on the way they are building the technology
  • Can not be a control freak. Must leave it to VP Eng to deliver
  • Must be an extrovert (i.e. likes to talking to people). Most think they are introverts.
  • Should not say they created anything – the team did

VP Engineering Role

What they are responsible for 

  • Responsible for the development and delivery the product
  • Recruitment of the team
  • Very technical role (typically this is thought of less technical and more people orientated). They are the model citizen that all devs feel they can go to

Anti Patterns

  • Can not be a process queen. Typically people look for a VP eng that are huge on process.
  • Do not have non-engineers in engineer management roles
  • When you spend too much time managing up, you loose touch with having to deliver high quality products
  • Should not be a cat herder
  • Can not always say no to everything


I also wrote another article on what the role of a CTO is