Community Article

CPTO or CPO & CTO? Which role should lead your tech & product team?

Co-Founder, Ant Sochan, outlines clarity about tech & product exec roles

For the past 15 years, we have been advising fast-growth tech founders to decide as part of the same hiring debate with the same two options:

Should you hire a Chief Product and Technology Officer? Or, should you keep your technology and product functions reporting into separate executives (CTO and CPO)?

In this article, I’ll walk you through the typical scenarios we see from businesses in different stages of growth and the pros of each hiring decision regarding these roles. 

First, let’s start with why a new executive typically gets brought onboard 

It should be noted that businesses can experience all of the below scenarios simultaneously, but we find one of the three is most pronounced and therefore the priority:

  • Growth: The business is in scaling mode; with the key aim for product and technology to provide more output by increasing capacity.
  • Transformation: The business has hit a few roadblocks; typically by accumulating technology, product or cultural debt, and in order to hit the expected rates of growth, a transformation process needs to be undertaken. 
  • Renewal: The business is undergoing some sort of strategic change; such as the technical co-founder moving into a different role, so a backfill needs to occur, a new product line is being developed and launched or the product is launching in a new market and needs to get ‘market-ready’. 

The pros of having separate Chief Technology Officer and Chief Product Officer positions

  • Two executives who are each incredibly focused on their respective patches, with equal voices at the leadership table, therefore an equal amount of input into big decisions. 
  • The business will be well-equipped through periods of change or uncertainty with two executives either in lockstep with each other or at odds. 
  • This healthy tension is incredibly important in cementing the most critical thing that the product and technology function needs to be working on and how those functions work together to execute. 

As an example, a single leader guiding both the technology and product functions may struggle as the business undergoes a re-platforming exercise, due to the accumulation of high levels of technical debt. There’s a lot of pressure from the business to move fast, however re-platforming needs critical resources to enable the business to move faster in the future, but at present adds very little immediate value. The complexity of this situation has led us to advise founders that the separation of roles leads to better outcomes. 

The second part of this example is around the cost to the business on getting this exercise wrong. It will be disastrous as such executives are required to bring deep functional expertise in their specific area. The typical background of a Chief Product and Technology Officer is from either the world of technology/engineering or product, so the depth they can go to will be limited. 

The pros of having a single executive role having responsibility of product and technology functions

  • We have seen this work when the business’ vision and strategy is clear, where the product and technology strategy can be easily developed. This usually exists in times of growth where there is very little firefighting going on. 
  • There is a combination of speed of execution and throughput. The healthy tension mentioned earlier will not be as pronounced between technology and product as the Chief Product & Technology Officer will be able to make “captain’s calls” where necessary. 
  • Their direct reports usually are operating at VP, Director of or Head of level, so their concerns normally have to do with how execution should be done, as opposed to what needs to be done. 

To summarise, if speed is the business’ primary driver, the roles should be combined. If quality is required so that the business can speed up in the future, the roles should be separated. 

There are, of course, scenarios in the minority that could be mentioned. However, this would lead this article to be 10x longer to walk through all of them specifically. This is exactly why we advise fast-growth tech founders as part of our workshops and breadth of services; every founder, team, goals and business is different. 

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ARTICLE by Anthony Sochan, Co-Founder, 14 July 2024


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