Startup CTO versus Executive CTO

CTO is one of those funny titles that can refer to so many different jobs. The title has a certain prestige among technical-minded people, but can mean so many things, from Chief Architect (with little/no people management), to IT Manager (in non-SaaS companies), to Head of Development (in many SaaS companies).

Even when the CTO is a Head of Development in a SaaS, I still see two different types:

  1. One is the Startup CTO whose “development department” consists of a single small team (<10 people) in a young, fast-growing company.
  2. The other is the Executive CTO who is responsible for a large development department (>40 people) that consists of multiple teams where typically only managers and/or directors report directly to the Executive CTO.

I often see discussions about what the CTO should do — should the CTO do hands-on coding? —go haywire, because people think of the two different profiles. And what makes good sense for the Startup CTO may not make much sense for the Executive CTO, and vice versa.

In my mind, the greatest differentiater between the Executive CTO and Startup CTO is that the Executive CTO is a manager of managers, so Executive CTO is mostly about scale, and the Startup CTO is mostly about speed.

However, while there are tons of things that differentiate the two types of CTO — and I’ve been both — I think what unites them is that the person will be the last line of defence for all technical issues and decisions in the company, and this is super important!

In a large SaaS you may have a Director of Engineering who is responsible for 30-40 engineers, but can still escalate tough choices to the VP or CTO level, whereas a Startup CTO may have just 5 engineers, but no one to escalate to and must just “deal with it” whatever it is.

This means that whether you’re a Startup CTO or an Executive CTO, then an unusually high degree of resourcefulness will be required to flourish in the job🚀