Last year there was a lot of talk in the startup scene about having a CTPO: Meaning a CTO (Chief Technology Officer) and a CPO (Chief Product Officer) unified in one person. To be honest, this really is not entirely new – this kind of unified role has always existed before in the startup scene and everywhere else as well. However, for a specific time something happened that I would call a trend. Why? Because everybody was talking about the CTPO thinking it is a great new idea. It was a little bit like what happened with Agile or the Spotify model. Neither of those were entirely new ideas, and they were based on certain principles that already existed. But people quickly adopted what were perceived as novel approaches, without reflecting on them deeply. And I think that is a mistake! While the debate has kind of blown over a little, the question whether to have a CTPO or separate CTO and CPO roles is still very relevant for young companies building their organizational setup. It is something that we continue to encounter on a regular basis. That is why I would like to revisit the topic and comment a bit on this CTPO model.
Like Being In a Good Marriage
While I think in some setups and at certain stages this unified function of a CTPO can make total sense, I think it is a bit risky in other contexts or with certain people. Product and tech, although being closely related to each other, usually have very different angles on how they perceive the world in general and the business in particular.
Product management people are usually very business and user oriented. In their position, it is more about the Why. Tech people on the other hand are traditionally more focused on the How. Certainly, that has changed over the last twenty years or so, and we can see the roles having become closer to one another. But still: The emphasis on the business, the capabilities of calculating a business case and thinking strategically in terms of business and product strategy; that is still something product people are usually much better at than tech leaders.
The reason why people at early-stage startups want to combine the CTO and the CPO into a joint CTPO role is, first of all, the (false) hope for a reduced budget. Unfortunately, in most of the cases, this is an illusion because any candidate who really lives up to the expectation is usually very expensive.
The second reason is that you naturally want to bridge the gap between the tech and the product organization – and that makes total sense. After all, you want to have the two as closely together as possible. So there is the expectation that if you have one person leading both tech and product management, that they will be uniting those two teams, and you will not have that gap. However, I think that is a little bit of an illusion as well. Almost every person that I know in one of those roles has a certain preference, a certain background, and level of expertise. Usually, you are either best at one or the other.
Oftentimes when a person who is technically very strong takes over that CTPO role, they have a certain bias towards technical decisions. That can be unconsciously, which makes it even more dangerous. This holds true the other way around as well: If you have someone who is very strong at product, but maybe tech is their weak spot, the decisions they make are oftentimes more in favor of product and business and sometimes tech does suffer.
So revisiting this topic, I personally am still very much a fan of having two people in those two roles. In a well-working setup, it is like being in a good marriage. You are fighting here and there, and you do not always have aligned interests, but you figure out a way. It is a constructive fight that you are having – more like wrestling. And in the end it is a joint effort, and you achieve a shared goal. So, if you have one CTO and one CPO then you always have a sparring partner whether you want it or not – again, like in a marriage. And they remind you of something you tend to forget.
Before You Know it, Complexities Can Become Overwhelming
If you have a very early stage company with a small team size and a very narrow focus to look at, and you are currently in the process of building a prototype and MVP, a very early first version – fine, have a CTPO model. No problem at all. You will be able to handle the context, team, technology, product and everything else at once. But as the company grows, the complexity grows as well. Naturally, you will have to deal with a bigger product and technology scope as well as team size. And of course, you also need to take care of the market: Do you have a good product-market fit? Do you have the right business and product strategy? And how do they align with one another?
Suddenly you will be dealing with a lot of topics, which can quickly become overwhelming. To be honest, most CTOs and CPOs that I know are not entirely capable of handling all of that or even overseeing it by delegating it to the right people. Usually they are pretty good at what they are doing, but they are also challenged with the daily issues, topics, and requirements you have in a fast-growing startup.
So in the first phase of a startup or if you are a scale up that is well established, and you have the budget to hire a top-notch CTPO or someone with plenty of experience, seniority, and strategic knowledge, then the joint role can make sense. Go for it! But in the phase in between, I am not sure about whether this is the best solution. So I would say take a closer look at your organization and the requirements. Look at the potential candidates for those separate roles or such a unified role. I would like to remind every CTO and CPO to really do some soul-searching whether this is the next step of development. Can you already master a CTPO role easily, or would you like to focus a little bit more on improving your skills in your core domain or expertise before you make that next step – because it will be a lot!
Find Out What Works For You!
So is the CTPO role right for you – or separate CTO and CPO roles? In the end, as always in life, it depends. Of course, there are people and setups where a CTPO model works best. This is the ideal. But let’s face it: Many people in Tech and Product leadership positions are already challenged with one of those roles. Both are demanding positions which require lots of skills. The war for talent is already incredibly tough, even if you just look for either a decent CTO or a capable CPO.
At the end of the day, you have to be honest. The CTPO role is not for everyone. If you find one of those gems who are equally capable of both Product and Tech, and it works for your setup, consider yourself extremely lucky. Gems are rare for a reason. But do not necessarily think that this has to be the way and blindly follow that trend. Because in many cases a team – and it is a team sport after all – of CPO and CTO works much better than an overwhelmed or even biased CTPO.