Rise of the CPTO (Chief Product & Technology Officer)

I thrive as a cross-functional digital product development leader, where I can see the big picture and how each discipline integrates to make cohesive, integrated products that delight customers. Asking me to choose between engineering, product, UX, and project management is like asking me to choose between my kids. The title of “Chief Product & Technology Officer” is gaining a bit of traction. It’s the closest approximation to the confluence of my experience.

I rose through the ranks in engineering, including CTO at a small startup. But I didn’t pursue a Computer Science degree; instead I got a degree in UX. Why? Because the kind of software engineering that interests me is best learned by solving real-world problems while creating real products for real customers. And the way you do that is by learning from others on the job or online community.

I was much more interested in a formal education that taught me how to make products that people actually want to use. At a small startup without a separate product and/or UX department, I was able to wear many hats. But when I worked as an engineering manager for Oracle, that changed. I like engineering, but I like other things too. I was fortunate enough to be able to pivot into product management, and there too I quickly rose through the ranks to Head of Product at another startup.

I certainly see engineering leadership roles that claim that a product mindset is desired, but nobody looks past the fact that my most recent role was Head of Product (nevermind that I oversaw all of product development in that role and actively develop products on the side). I also see product leadership roles that claim that a background in engineering is desirable, but somehow also require 15+ years of pure product management experience. What they really mean, I think, is that they’d like someone with an engineering degree and/or just a wee bit of IC experience in engineering, but who quickly learned engineering wasn’t for them and pivoted early in their career.

Ultimately, it’s made me act a bit schizophrenic when looking for a new role. I get an interview for a product leadership role, and I downplay my engineering experience. I get an interview for an engineering leadership role, and I downplay my product management experience. I don’t fit into the traditional divisions of engineering, product, and UX. Recruiters and hiring managers are looking to fill a specific gap identified by a job req. Some are even looking for both an engineering leader and a product leader simultaneously, but reject the notion of that potentially being a single person. Cross-functional roles overseeing all of product development are rare, so I aggressively pursue them when I find them. For everything else, there are 3 versions of my resume that highlight very different facets of my professional experience.

When one does encounter an executive whose purview is over all of product development, it usually entails an upset of the traditional balance of powers between engineering and product. There is the case of the engineering leader that becomes CTO who, in spite of having no training or experience in product management, through political maneuvering is able to come to manage the product / UX orgs. They then immediately hire a product leader under them that actually knows what they’re doing in that discipline. But make no mistake: when push comes to shove, the company in which this executive exists in unabashedly engineering-led. The tech is sure to be top class but often at the expense of the ability to quickly pivot to take advantage of business opportunities. The reverse is less common, but no less detrimental. A product development org that doesn’t properly tend to its tech on account of its head having inadequate training and experience in engineering often accrues mountains of technical debt in service of chasing business value without engineering discipline.

But what about the common wisdom that a leader needn’t have a baseline competence in all the disciplines he/she oversees? After all, isn’t the wise leader the one that surrounds him/herself with smart people and gives them a wide girth? Yes and no. A CEO cannot possibly know enough to effectively manage a company of 10 or more people without partnering with specialist leaders, let alone have the time to do it. And so a leadership team is created, each individual having expertise in their area. The smaller the company, the more useful generalists are. But the usefulness of a generalist changes as a function of the size of the company. As the company grows, another layer of leadership emerges below the first rung of specialization, which is in turn more specialized. But that does not obviate the need for first tier leadership to have a baseline competence regarding the specialties below him/her. Each leader should optimally possess enough of a working knowledge of each discipline he/she oversees to effectively manage it.

So why not keep product and engineering, and perhaps even UX, as separate orgs all reporting up through their respective leaders to the CEO? Indeed, I believe this arrangement is preferable to engineering or product being subservient to the other. But there are also inefficiencies which are exposed in this arrangement. A CEO is often ill-equipped to mediate between these leaders as effectively doing so requires more than a passing knowledge of their respective disciplines. It would be far better to have a leader with baseline competence in all of product development to make executive decisions about the product rather than raising each of these issues to the Chief Executive. It’s the same rationale as sales and marketing being represented by a Chief Revenue Officer, even though there may be a tier of leadership below in each of those departments. If you don’t have a singular executive with a baseline competence in the org below him/her, that org ought to be split. Ultimately, organizational design should be optimized for executive decisions being made by leaders best equipped to make them.

It’s exceedingly rare to find someone that has IC and management experience in all the main disciplines that contribute to make a product, yet here I am. I have led engineering orgs. I have led product management teams. I have designed brands and interfaces professionally, and I have built deployment scripts as a DevOps engineer. Unfortunately, that seems to have put me in a precarious position rather than opening doors for me. I wish that it was not so. I wish that Chief Product & Technology Officers were more pervasive. CPTOs should be able to effectively balance product, engineering, and UX concerns. The CPTO should understand, appreciate, and empathize with all product development specialties. A CTO with no practical, substantial product management experience should not subordinate the product org. And a CPO with no substantive engineering leadership experience should not subordinate the engineering org. Only the truly cross-functional product development leader should be permitted to oversee its entirety. And when such a leader is found, the results can be amazingly efficient and cohesive.

So here’s to the rise of the Chief Product & Technology Officer, the Renaissance Man of the Information Age. You aren’t the very best engineer, product manager, UX designer, or project manager the world has ever seen. But you’re pretty damn good at all of them, and you’re really good at seeing how they all fit together at both strategic and tactical levels to make amazing products. Godspeed.

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