3 signs that you are not yet a strategic CTO or VP Engineering
Here are 3 signs that you are a Startup CTO or Startup VP Engineering who is not yet a strategic CTO or VP Engineering — who’s likely in danger of being replaced by your board in the next 3–5 years:
1. You feel like you are not working.
You spend your days in meetings, you code less, or not at all, and you wonder: “what did I actually deliver today, this week, this month, this quarter?”
2. What counted for you as work before you became CTO or VP was: code submitted, releases, product delivered.
Now you feel like you’re not doing any “real work” and if someone asked, you wouldn’t be able to say in a measurable way where you added value this month.
3. You question yourself:
“Should I suggest that we hire someone to do this thing, instead of doing it myself?” but you never know if or when it’s the right thing or time to suggest it.
You wonder what is the right algorithm to use to decide if this is something you should do.
These are the 3 most common signs I’ve seen in CTOs and VPs Engineering in scale-ups, usually at Series A.
These CTOs and VPs of Engineering have not yet made the mental shift from individual contributor to strategic contributor.
It’s normal — it’s not their fault.
A year or two ago, most of these people were Lead Dev or Senior Engineer.
What they do at this point (1–2 years into leading a team of 20+ engineers) is crucial to their future career — will they proactively seek support now, before problems start, so that they grow into a strategic CTO as the company grows to Series B, C etc.
Or will they just ignore these warning signs and pretend they’re fine?
Most people come to me 3–5 years down the line, when their board or CEO wants to remove them as CTO because “they’re not commercial or strategic enough”.
By then it’s too late — all I can do is help them decide how to split their CTO role into CTO and Chief Architect or CEGO (Chief Engineering Officer) as their company hired a more commercial CTO to satisfy stakeholders.
The other thing I can help them with at that stage is decide which way they want their career to go from here and help them carve out the right job description for their skills (if they’re lucky enough that the company wants to keep them on board).
These people are in danger of going into “engineering limbo” where they don’t quite transition fully into tech leadership but they’re no longer a pure engineer either.
Don’t get stuck in engineering limbo — if you’ve been in the role for a year or two — start speaking to an advisor (like me) now, before the board realises that you don’t have the commercial and strategic experience they’re after.
What advice do you have to help CTOs and VPs avoid engineering limbo?