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Founding engineer or Founder/CTO?

I’ve seen a number of great posts about the contrast between VPs of Engineering and CTOs for startups.  Here, here and here. The short version, if you don’t want to read those posts, is that a CTO is technology oriented and a VPE is process and team oriented. At a young startup there is significant overlap. If you are a software startup, you need to be aware of this split.

How quickly these roles need to be delineated depends on the size and growth of your startup. If you have one or two technical folks, no need to do this (but you do need to determine who is in charge of technology). If you have ten engineers and are planning to add five more in the next six months, you should have already split these roles up. But today I wanted to write about the difference between being a CTO, the typical title for the founding technical member, and founding engineer. This is based on some discussions I’ve had or read, most notably with Jason Cole, who runs a consultancy focusing on technical leadership (all erroneous thoughts are of course mine).

When you are early in a startup (seed or pre-seed), you want a developer who can ship product. Nothing is more important than choosing the right market and getting a solution out to that market so that customers can give you feedback (with their dollars). CTOs of bigger companies actually don’t spend any time coding. They work on strategy, partnerships, hiring and other higher leverage activities. But that won’t work for a startup–you actually need someone to build product.

That person is really a founding engineer. Such a person is a special breed. Like an engineer on a larger team, the founding engineer needs to be able to execute and build product, quickly. They need to be aware of technical debt and when assuming it makes sense. They need to write code that works, is testable and performant. They need to evaluate whether to build or buy or download from Github. They’ll be performing devops tasks as well, such as monitoring the application, troubleshooting performance issues, and making sure deployments and rollbacks happen cleanly.

In addition to all of that, the founding engineer must communicate with non technical folks, both within the organization (including the CEO) and outside of the company. The founding engineer may or may not be doing tier 1 customer support, but will be doing tier 2 support. They also have to be willing and able to drive decisions, especially around technical issues. They need to be able to understand and give feedback on the business strategy at some level, as that will determine technical decisions. The founding engineer also needs to able and willing to take market feedback. This may be filtered through others, and any response should be discussed with the other founders, but market feedback and quick iteration is a strength of a startup. The founding engineer may be doing some product management as well, depending on the other team members’ strengths. They’ll be the de-facto UX designer. They also will be interacting with vendors and contractors. They may review budgets and will hire technical team members. It’s possible they’ll interact with investors if funding is sought.

For all the additional responsibilities, the founding engineer should be compensated, well, like a founder. With not much money and gobs of equity. (Not much money is obviously relative, and depends on market value.)

But, at some point the company will either grow or fail. If the company fails, there’s obviously no worries about future roles! But if the company succeeds and grows, the founding engineer can take four paths.

1. CTO

They can grow into the CTO role, focusing on technical strategy. Until there are significant numbers of engineers (10ish) the CTO may continue to code. They may be doing code reviews for some time thereafter. But at some point they’ll be focused on technical direction of the company, competitors and partners, and large scale technical trends that may affect the company’s business.

2. VPE

They can grow into the CTO role, and then transition to a VPE. The reason they have to go through the CTO role first is that it’s unlikely the company will need the process and team building skills of a VPE until a bit later. But at that point they can focus on delivery, team building and process. They’ll likely work with product managers and the CTO on strategic direction of the company.

3. Technical lead

They can choose to remain a technical lead. This will mean that someone is hired over them into the CTO and/or VPE roles. This will be tough on the ego. However, it’s important to realize what brings them joy in life. If they want to stay close to the code, a technical lead role is best. In this role, the entire team needs to be very aware of who is in charge, especially if this transition happens after the CTO or VPE path is attempted.

4. Leave

An early stage startup is a magical thing. Everything is on fire all the time, but the ability to wear many hats, have a direct impact on customer lives and ship quickly may be what they value. If so, as the startup gets bigger, some of these opportunities will disappear. Specialization happens.

There’s nothing wrong with title inflation, but CTO (and CEO, for that matter) titles at a startup aren’t equivalent to the same titles at a company of 100 let alone 500 or 100,000. If you are joining a startup as a technical founder, realize that whatever your title, you’re really the founding engineer, and that, when success occurs, you need to choose.