Is the Time Right to Hire a VP of Engineering or a Chief Technical Officer?

Both are essential roles, but each hire should take place at a different point in a startup’s life. I’ve got 3 pieces of advice to guide the decision.

Written by Bobby Mukherjee
Published on Feb. 21, 2022
Is the Time Right to Hire a VP of Engineering or a Chief Technical Officer?
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You’re an energized, activated founder, moving quickly and decisively with a small group of dedicated co-founders. You’ve raised some funding and now you've reached a critical inflection point: making a lynchpin hire. You’re ready to build out an engineering team, one that’ll require talent, management and direction, not to mention open communication with product function and leadership so that you’re shipping great products to customers on a regular cadence.

It’s a lot. Fortunately, recruiting an exceptional engineering team is not your job; that responsibility falls on your vice president of engineering. Your job is hiring that VP. I’m going to walk you through how to think about this process, because it might be different from what you have in mind.

Read More on the CTO Role on Built In’s Expert Contributors Network What Makes a Unicorn CTO?


VPE vs. CTO: What’s the Difference?

At this point in your company’s lifespan, one of the first things to understand is the differences between a VP of engineering and chief technical officer. I think about these two technical roles as the opposing ends of a spectrum. At one end is the engineer who’s strong in the people arts,’ such as recruiting, mentoring, coaching, providing structure, and communicating with customers and internal stakeholders such as the product organization and leadership teams. At the other end is the engineer who’s deeply technical, truly a next-level whiz obsessed with architecture, who’s probably rather insular, perhaps publishes white papers, likely comes from the world of academia and could be involved in an open-source organization.

That deeply technical engineering leader is your CTO. The people-oriented engineering leader is your VP of engineering.

This is an oversimplification, of course. Qualified candidates and opportunities for growth exist across the spectrum. But with these personality types and skillsets as your baseline, you can decide what kind of role you need to fill and when you need to fill it.


You Should Hire a VPE First

Timing, as they say, is everything. And that’s certainly true when it comes to hiring your VPE. Bring a VPE on too early and often the engineering team will become burdened with process at the expense of shipping product more rapidly. And for most early-stage startups, putting your product in the hands of customers is foundational to truly understanding your market niche. Bring in your VPE too late and you risk ceding the opportunity to a competitor or incumbent because all of the company’s focus should be on scaling, rather than be distracted by self-assessment and recruitment efforts.

Oftentimes founding teams have someone who takes a CTO-like role from the beginning, a co-founder who goes deep on technical problems and doesnt need to build or manage a team. So in very early-stage companies, these two roles can be filled by a single individual. But acceleration is everything at a startup, meaning that as things ramp up, one of the most important jobs for a technical leader becomes recruiting. Thats when you find your VP of engineering, someone who can hit the ground running and bring relationship equity with engineers in their domain. I dont see the need for a startup to look for their problem-focused, deeply technical CTO until later in the journey.


Startups, Know Thyselves

Another important consideration is the type of problem your company is solving. If eventually youll need a customer-facing technical leader, someone who will represent the product in public, then you want that VP of engineering whos comfortable in front of people. If the product is going to sell itself, then you can have that hyper-focused problem solver whos less interested in the people side of the business.

The composition of your startup and founding teams matter as well. What kind of personality types are involved already, and what unique perspectives do they bring? How will you complement them with people of contrasting skills and experience?

Again, this isnt a one-size-fits-all formula. People contain multitudes, as Whitman said, especially in this industry. And thats a good thing, because there are plenty of quality candidates out there. The question is, can you recruit them? Presuming you don’t have the bottomless resources of a Google or Facebook, you’ll need to appeal to their passions, not just their pocketbook.


3 Pieces of Advice on Deciding Between a VPE and a CTO

So to startup founders, I leave you with these three pieces of advice to help guide you on these critical hires:

3 Pieces of Advice for Founders Looking to Hire a VPE or CTO

  1. Understand your core competencies. Be honest with yourself about the skills and personality types of your founders and startup team as well as the nature of your product. Your first VP of engineering should be complementary, not redundant.
  2. Spectrum analysis. When it comes to technical leaders, most startup talent falls somewhere between management guru and technical wizard. Your VP should be closer to the former. When you’re ready for a CTO, consider the latter.
  3. Track your progress and keep moving. Your VPE will help ensure you’re shipping consistently. Once you’re comfortable with your cadence and your quality, you’re ready to onboard a CTO.

With the right VPE on board – one who understands and appreciates the human side of technology as much as the technology itself — you’ll be well positioned to accelerate into the next stage of growth.

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