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April 15, 2014 - by Bryan Cantrill
If you search for "cto vs. vp of engineering", one of the top hits is a presentation that I gave with Jason Hoffman at Monki Gras 2012. Aside from some exceptionally apt clip art, the crux of our talk was that these two roles should not be thought of as caricatures (e.g. the CTO as a silver tongue with grand vision but lacking practical know-how and the VP of Engineering as a technocrat who makes the TPS reports run on time), but rather as a team that together leads a company's technical endeavors. Yes, one is more outward- and future-looking and the other more team- and product-focused—but if the difference becomes too stark (that is, if the CTO and VP of Engineering can’t fill in for one another in a pinch) there may be a deeper cultural divide between vision and execution. As such, the CTO and the VP of Engineering must themselves represent the balance present in every successful engineer: they must be able to both together understand the world as it is—and envision the world as it could be.
This presentation has been on my mind recently because today my role at Joyent is changing: I am transitioning from VP of Engineering to CTO, and Mark Cavage is taking on the role of VP of Engineering. For me, this is an invigorating change in a couple of dimensions. First and foremost, I am excited to be working together with Mark in a formalized leadership capacity. The vitality of the CTO/VP of Engineering dynamic stems from the duo’s ability to function as a team, and I believe that Mark and I will be an effective one in this regard. (And Mark apparently forgives me for cussing him out when he conceived of what became Manta.)
Secondly, I am looking forward to talking to customers a bit more. Joyent is in a terrific position in that our vision for cloud computing is not mere rhetoric, but is based upon actually running services and shipping products. We are uniquely differentiated by the four technical pillars of our stack: SmartOS, node.js, SmartDataCenter and—as newly introduced last year—our revolutionary Manta storage service. These are each deep technologies in their own right, and especially at their intersections, they unlock capabilities that the market wants and needs—and our challenge now is as much communicating what we’ve done (and why we’ve done it) as it is continuing to execute. So while I have always engaged directly with customers, the new role will likely mean more time on planes and trains as I visit more customers (and prospective customers) to better understand how our technologies can help them solve their thorniest problems.
Finally, I am looking forward to the single most important role of the CTO: establishing the broader purpose of our technical endeavor. This purpose becomes the root of a company’s culture, as culture without purpose is mere costume. For Joyent and Joyeurs our purpose is simple: we’re here to change computing. As I mentioned in my Surge 2013 talk on technical leadership, superlative technologists are drawn to mission, team and problem—and in Joyent's case, the mission of changing computing (and the courage to tackle whatever problems that entails) has attracted an exceptionally strong team that I consider myself blessed to call my peers. I consider it a great honor to be Joyent's CTO, and I look forward to working with Mark and the team to continue to—in Steve Jobs' famous words—kick dents in the universe!