Press "Enter" to skip to content

Difference between CTO and VP of Engineering

This is a consecutive post to Difference Between Co-founder and Founding Member. In fact, the previous post is one of the most read articles on this website indicating many people are constantly looking for the answer to it, which lead me to write this post because I have my own definition between two.

First, I’d like to make my version of concise definition as below.

“CTO is a person who has the most technical knowledge in management team. VP of Engineering is a person who manages engineering team.”

Now, let’s break them into smaller pieces. Amongst many differences between these two types of people, there is a clear distinction in terms of which team in the company he/she belongs to. CTO is considered as a member of management team or often board members. Thus, CTO belongs to the same team to where other C-level people belong including CEO.

On the other hand, VP of Engineering is considered as a member or head of engineering team. Therefore, VP of Engineering belongs to the same team to where other employees belong. Perhaps, there are few startups or companies that appoint VP of Engineering to be a board member.

To make it even clearer, the biggest difference is what these two types of people represent. CTO represents a management team and speaks to employees. VP of Engineering represents an engineering team and speaks to the management team. A direction of communication is completely opposite each other.

More importantly, this is my own perception by the way, CTO was chosen just because he/she happens to be the most technical person in other C-level people. Due to this nature, a language spoken in two parties is also different.

In management team, the official language is business. Everyone in management team talks from business perspective since other C-level people most likely may not understand technical terminologies so that CTO should not use these technical terminologies in board meeting. In engineering team, the official language is of course technical. They are allowed to use any technical terminologies in order to proceed their projects.

A role of CTO is to come up with the means to implement a business decision made by the management team based on outcome from engineering team. A role of VP of Engineering to come up with and experiment the technical solutions toward a problem given by CTO and provide the best possible solution to CTO with reasonable explanation.

Sometimes I happen to encounter a startup lead by young CEO where their CTO is constantly talking about technical details in board meeting. If it’s absolutely necessarily, then it’s okay. But most often, it’s just CTO doing a job of VP of Engineering.

If CTO continues this behavior, then VP of Engineering will start doing a job which people at one level lower are supposed to do. Eventually, the startup will end with paying salary to a whole engineering team where everyone in engineering team is doing a job on which people at one level lower should be working. This is the situation to be avoided, particularly for startup with cash constraint.

Remember, the official language CTO is supposed to use in board meeting is business, not technical. Otherwise, he/she won’t be able to communicate with CEO/CFO/COO/CMO and other C-level people fully. In other words, if VP of Engineering wants to step up to CTO, then he/she must be equipped with some business knowledge at least.