I don’t like managing people. I don’t like managing processes.
It’s like operational brain damage to me.
Some people love it. Some people are absolutely amazing at it. They can whip a team into shape, mentor people, and get a team running like a well-oiled machine.
We desperately need those people.
I desperately need that person because it will never be me.
There are different kinds of engineering leaders, and you must figure out which one you are or most enjoy.
The 3 Types of Engineering Leaders
We need engineering leaders to help manage people, processes, and day-to-day operations. These are your VPs of Engineering.
We need engineer leaders who are architecture and coding geniuses. These are your Principal Engineers and Architects.
We need engineering leaders who are big thinkers, product visionaries, and innovators. They are visionary CTOs and startup founders.
The same person is rarely all 3 types. I would argue that they are different personality types. People who love to manage people and processes tend to be very detail-oriented. Big thinkers and innovators are rarely thinking about all of the details. The details get in the way of their grand ideas.
I could be any of the three types of leaders at a small company, but I am definitely more of a big thinker and innovator. I love to build new products and solve challenging problems.
If I am going to manage a team, I prefer to manage small groups that are more of a “Skunk Works” team. I want to do proof of concepts or prototypes of things to help move us forward.
I provide much more value doing that than managing the day-to-day operations of a very large team, which is not my personality type.
Setting a CTO Up for Failure
As the CTO of a small company, it is easy to be the hero. You are constantly jumping in, trying to fix big problems that need to be solved. Granted, if you have to be the hero all the time, that probably means you have some issues, but that isn’t my point today.
While you are heads down being the hero, who is managing the rest of the team?
This is where a CTO can be set up for failure in a small company.
I had this exact problem at one of my companies. At that time, I was the CEO, and our CTO was also the lead developer of our most important project. He was heads down in the code too much, and the overall engineering team was not well run. We eventually hired a Director so they could manage the main engineering team.
A startup CTO who is also an active individual contributor especially needs a VP or Director to help them.
What Is Your Preferred Role?
Success requires both the visionary and the operations person to work hand in hand.
I have witnessed that as me being a CEO and working with our COO and as a CTO and working with our VP of Engineering.
You must figure out which one you are and find your other half. You must also learn to work together and respect what each other does differently. I recommend a book called Rocket Fuel related to this topic.
I could never be the VP of Engineering of a large team. But I need one to manage it for me.
I have a lot of respect for what they do that I can’t do.