The Chief Product Officer vs. Chief Technology Officer

As your product grows, so should your team. Oftentimes, you’re going to add new roles as your business expands. Whichever department we talk about, the hierarchy can get pretty complex. This is especially true when it comes to product management.

Still a very new domain in tech, it spawned a number of new terms, from product marketing managers all the way to CPO - a chief product officer. So, who’s a CPO, and why do you need one?

And more importantly, do you want to hire a CPO if you already have a CTO? These are the questions we’re about to answer today.

Chief Product Officer vs. Chief Technology Officer - at a glance

A Chief Product Officer (CPO) is the person in charge of high-level initiatives in the product teams. This includes establishing and maintaining the product vision, as well as heading product design, development, or innovation. Depending on the organization, this role is sometimes called VP of Product or Head of Product. Usually, they report to the CEO.

A Chief Technical Officer (CTO) handles all the technological requirements of a company. In SaaS businesses, they are in charge of overseeing the technical (development) teams and making sure they have the tools and support they need to deliver long-term results for the company. They usually report to the Chief Information Officer (CIO) or more commonly, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO).

In short, they’re two completely different roles, and it’s possible to have one, both, or neither in your team.

Chief Product Officer vs. Chief Technology Officer - the similarities

Let’s first tackle the similarities between the two different positions. Although they deal with different teams and priorities, they have a few things in common.

The drive for change - both the CPO and the CTO aim to drive change in their organizations, from top to bottom. Following the product mission and vision, they instruct the development, design, and product teams to make the necessary changes that move the product forward.

Collaboration with the development, design and other hands-on teams - both roles work with developers, QA specialists, designers, and other technical roles to refine the product. While their feedback comes from different angles, the main goal is the same: create a product that is better in the technical aspect.

Chief Product Officer vs Chief Technology Officer - the differences

Okay, there seems to be a lot of overlap between the two roles, but there are also differences between a CPO and CTO that need to be highlighted. Some critics would say that these are nuances rather than huge differences, but they still have to be highlighted.

The tech focus: both roles are in charge of improving the product and solving customer pain points, but they don’t have the same precise focus. A CTO is more involved with the tech stack used to create or refine a product. Meanwhile, a CPO manages details such as customer feedback, the UX, and the design.

The stakeholders: a CTO mainly communicates with the development, project management, and other teams within a business. On the other hand, a huge part of the CTO's role is communicating with customers. In other words, their main stakeholders are different: CTOs are focused inward while a CPO is looking outward to collect feedback and understand customers.

The metrics: a CTO looks at a product’s performance in terms of how the customers are using it: product adoption, bugs, the use of certain features, and more. On the other hand, a CPO focuses on the bigger picture and looks at product stickiness, customer retention, customer growth, and others. In short, the focus of a CTO is much narrower.

The background: a CTO usually comes from software development as it’s necessary to understand this tech well to succeed in this role. Meanwhile, CPOs come from various walks of life, from marketing to customer success and sales, as there is no clear career path or progression in the product. Last but not least, there is no formal education leading to this role.

How do they work together? 

In a smaller business, you won’t need both a CTO and CPO and the work will usually overlap and be done by a single person. 

In bigger organizations, you’ll have both roles with distinct duties but eventually, they will be collaborating.

For example, a CTO might have an idea about an amazing new feature and they’ll inquire with the CPO about whether it’s actually something that users need. At the same time, the CPO might have a super urgent feature and they’ll ask the CTO if it’s feasible with the current tech stack and time availability.

In any case, they are at the same hiearchical level and they work alongside each other rather than one being on top of the other.

So, which one do you need?

The only right answer is - it depends. If you run a small business with a relatively young product, you don’t need a CPO just yet - especially if you don’t have any product roles supporting it. At the early stages of a product, the bulk of the CPO tasks should be split between a CEO and a CTO. 

As your company grows, along with your customer base, and you start hiring your first product roles, you can consider getting a CPO on board. This role will strengthen your customer communications, help you manage feedback, and improve the internal workflow across different departments.

Speaking of collecting customer feedback, FeedBear helps you do just that, whether you have a CPO or not - and especially if you don’t. Sign up for your free trial to get started!

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