By Robbert van Os
Posted on 2023-09-08T00:00:00.000Z

From 'Tech Lead' to 'CTO': Navigating the Invisible Quotes of Your Title

Explore the journey from 'Tech Lead' to 'CTO' with a blend of case-based insights and motivational cues. Uncover what those heavy titles actually entail as your team and responsibilities grow.

In the scaling tech world, meet John—a technical co-founder who evolved from managing interns to leading an expansive engineering department. His journey sheds light on the weighty titles that come with transitional roles.

The Invisible Quotes Around "CTO"

John started with a simple mission: Build the MVP. As his team ballooned, so did his responsibilities, and soon, the title "CTO" found its way onto his business cards. But those invisible quotes? They were still there.

Know Thy Role

1. Tech Lead: The Visionary Creator

  • Main Focus: Building the MVP
  • Responsibilities:
    • Driving the tech stack: As the Tech Lead, you decide whether to go with React or Angular, AWS or Azure. Your choices lay the groundwork for the project's technical future.
    • Nurturing a small team: You're likely working with a handful of developers. It's your job to help them grow their skills while ensuring they're aligned with the project's needs.
  • Example: Suppose you're building a SaaS product. As the Tech Lead, you would decide on the architecture, pick the technologies, and guide your team of 2-3 developers through the development phase.

2. Engineering Manager: The Resourceful Orchestrator

  • Main Focus: Scaling the team
  • Responsibilities:
    • Venturing into the managerial domain: You're not just overseeing code; you're managing people, ensuring that the team stays productive and resolves conflicts effectively.
    • Conflict resolution: If two team members have different opinions on an approach, you step in to mediate and find a solution.
    • Team alignment: You ensure everyone is on the same page, from coding standards to project timelines.
  • Example: Your team of 5-7 engineers is developing multiple features concurrently. You would handle resource allocation, ensure coding best practices are followed, and act as the liaison between the development team and other departments like Product and Sales.

3. VP/Director of Engineering: The Strategic Maestro

  • Main Focus: Organizational strategy
  • Responsibilities:
    • Juggling multiple teams: You have multiple teams, each with their own leads and managers, to oversee. Your decisions impact the entire engineering department.
    • Decision-making at an organizational level: You decide if it's time to adopt microservices, or if the company should invest in a new technology.
  • Example: You oversee 3 engineering teams, each working on a different aspect of a large e-commerce platform. Your role would involve long-term planning, such as deciding to move towards a microservices architecture for scalability.

4. CTO: The Executive Pathfinder

  • Main Focus: Company-wide strategy
  • Responsibilities:
    • Crossing the tech-business divide: You’re equally comfortable discussing API endpoints and quarterly revenue targets.
    • Strategic decision-making: Whether it’s deciding to pivot the product or enter a new market, your decisions are aligned with the company's business goals.
  • Example: As the CTO of a mid-sized startup, you would work closely with the CEO and other C-level executives to set the company’s technological direction while keeping an eye on KPIs and business objectives.

Roles Beyond Titles: A Strategic Depth to Naming

In the dynamic landscape of tech startups, the importance of job titles goes beyond mere nomenclature. These titles not only serve as a concise summary of your role and responsibilities but also play a strategic role in the organization's growth and identity. Titles like 'Tech Lead,' 'Engineering Manager,' or 'CTO' can signal both to internal team members and external stakeholders what you bring to the table. Moreover, these titles can sometimes influence how clients, investors, and even future hires perceive the organizational structure and competence. Therefore, selecting the right title can be a calculated move that aligns with the startup's culture, objectives, and growth strategy.

Team Size and Skill Set

In a startup environment, it's not uncommon to see a one-person army holding the title of "CTO." On the flip side, in a larger, more structured organization, an individual might be overseeing multiple teams but still prefer the title "Tech Lead." These scenarios could be a reflection of the depth of the skill set required or even the perceived weight of the title within the industry.

Sales Leverage

Titles like "CTO" may carry considerable weight in the business landscape and can be leveraged in sales processes. When potential clients or partners see strong leadership in place, it can create a sense of reliability and confidence in your organization. However, misuse or overuse of such titles without backing them up can lead to a loss of credibility. Authenticity is crucial.

Keeping Room for Growth

Sometimes, founders deliberately leave the "CTO" title vacant, even if someone is effectively fulfilling that role. This leaves room for bringing in a more experienced individual in the future as the company scales. The existing team member may transition to a "VP of Engineering" or similar role, leaving the "CTO" position open for a new strategic hire.

Aligning with Business Objectives

Ultimately, the title you hold should align with both your responsibilities and the company’s broader strategic goals. It can serve as a signal to both internal and external stakeholders about the direction the company is headed. This also offers a blueprint for skills development, guiding team members on what to focus on for professional growth.

The Role's the Thing

While titles can be impressive and strategic, it's crucial to remember that what really counts is your actual role and the responsibilities that come with it. Titles may change, but the core competencies and contributions you bring to the table remain integral to the company's growth and success at every stage. Authenticity is particularly vital here; if you're leveraging your title in sales processes or as part of an external-facing role, the title must reflect real skills and capabilities. In other words, your actions should validate the title you hold. Failure to align your roles and responsibilities with the title can lead to internal confusion, create false expectations, and even jeopardize relationships with clients and partners.

It's worth noting that the journey from Tech Lead to CTO isn't always a linear four-step process. Depending on the size and complexity of the company, there may be various intermediate roles that serve as stepping stones along your career path. These roles often come with incrementally greater responsibilities and could be specially tailored to fit the unique needs of your organization. Titles like "Senior Engineer," "Lead Developer," or "Head of Engineering" might emerge, each offering a nuanced set of responsibilities that prepare you for the next big leap. So, while the spotlight often falls on the more familiar titles, these intermediate positions are just as critical in your growth and the overall hierarchy of the company.

Quiz Time: What's Your Best-Fit Title?

Note: This quiz is a rough estimate and subject to personal interpretation.

  1. How many team members do you manage?
  • 1-2 (1 Point)
  • 5-7 (2 Points)
  • 8+ (3 Points)
  1. How involved are you in coding?
  • Very (1 Point)
  • Somewhat (2 Points)
  • Not at All (3 Points)
  1. Who do you primarily report to?
  • No one/I'm the boss (3 Points)
  • CEO or COO (2 Points)
  • Another Manager (1 Point)
  1. How often are you involved in company-wide strategy?
  • Always (3 Points)
  • Sometimes (2 Points)
  • Rarely/Never (1 Point)
  1. What's your focus?
  • Coding (1 Point)
  • Team Management (2 Points)
  • Business Strategy (3 Points)

Scoring Model

  • 5-9 Points: You're a Tech Lead
  • 10-12 Points: You're an Engineering Manager
  • 13-15 Points: You're a VP/Director of Engineering
  • 16-20 Points: You're a CTO