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Product Officers

Does Your Company Need a Chief Product and Technology Officer?

A Guide to Whether You Should Combine Product and Technology Leadership

The corporate landscape is witnessing a surge in the adoption of a combined leadership position: the Chief Product and Technology Officer, or CPTO. This role brings together product management and engineering oversight into a cohesive executive function. However, while this integration may seem enticing, is it truly the optimal choice for your company? Perhaps, and perhaps not. The convergence of product and engineering brings both advantages and disadvantages, prompting a crucial question for any leadership team: Is the CPTO role aligned with our company's innovation and strategic objectives?

To shed light on this matter, we spoke with product and technology executives to gain insights into their decision-making processes. Here's the guidance they offer to leaders deciding how to structure their product and engineering organizations:

Consider hiring a CPTO when:

  • Your product is inherently technical, which is often the case for companies in AI software or hardware manufacturing. A CPTO can effectively bridge the gap between product vision and technical feasibility, particularly in such contexts where technology serves as a core differentiator.
  • Enhanced collaboration between product and tech teams is desired – as is often the case during periods of rapid growth. A CPTO can dismantle communication barriers that may exist between these vital departments. “I loved owning product and tech at Amazon during a massive phase of innovation at Fresh. Roughly 80% of my time was working on innovating, so owning both helped us align priorities as we developed new products and features,” shares Paul Horvath, former head of Product and Technology for Amazon Fresh and Prime Now.
  • Time is of the essence, especially in Private Equity (PE)-backed companies. A single point of accountability in the form of a CPTO can expedite decision-making processes and ensure integrated strategies aligning with both development and customer needs. Abhinav Agrawal describes his experience as CPTO for Netchex, stating, "Having both the engineering and product organizations report into me has allowed me to both address tech debt and deliver new products and functionality much quicker than I would have been able to if I only had product." He further explains, "With the private equity focus on delivering [relatively] short-term results, I have been able to accomplish much more in this organizational structure. Also, both my CEO and our PE investors appreciate having a single executive with full responsibility over the product."
  • Your CEO lacks a background in product or engineering. Consolidating roles under a CPTO provides a unified leadership approach, particularly beneficial when the CEO isn't deeply involved in the day-to-day operations of product and engineering teams.

However, pursuing a CPTO solution necessitates consideration of potential downsides. For instance the combined responsibilities can be demanding, potentially leading to burnout. Additionally, identifying qualified candidates with the requisite blend of product and technology expertise can pose a challenge, often requiring a trade-off between a product executive with technical acumen or vice versa. Moreover, when the right candidate is found, substantial resources may be needed to secure their recruitment.

Over the long term, there's a risk of certain aspects receiving inadequate attention. The amalgamation of distinct roles may lead to a loss of focus on specific areas like product strategy or technology infrastructure, something an effective leader will need to work hard to avoid. “Being a good CTPO is all about always remembering that you are both – a CPO and a CTO. You can never let one instinct win over the other. You must encourage and thrive on that healthy tension between a CPO and a CTO - within yourself,” says Sandeep Garg, CPTO at InMoment

Combining product and engineering oversight isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. In some cases, maintaining separate roles may be more prudent. Here's what product and engineering leaders advise.

Consider hiring separate Chief Product Officer (CPO) and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) when:

  • Your product isn't highly technical, and technology serves merely as a tool for your business operations. In such instances, distinct expertise in product strategy and tech infrastructure may be more beneficial.
  • You already have strong, established product and tech teams. Disrupting well-functioning teams could do more harm than good. Retaining dedicated leadership and specialized guidance can further empower existing teams.
  • Your product and tech requirements are complex and demand specialized oversight. Separating the roles allows each leader to delve deeply into their respective domains for greater strategic effectiveness. Coupa kept the product and engineering leadership roles separate with great success. Former EVP of Products, Raja Hammoud shares, “I believe organizations should strongly consider separating these roles, particularly for complex products. These roles demand distinct specializations in product vision and technical leadership. While rare individuals possess expertise in both areas, there's a risk of overemphasizing their area of strength. Leaders with an engineering background might over prioritize technical aspects, potentially reducing the focus on user needs and business strategy. Conversely, product-focused leaders might overlook the importance of maintaining a current architecture and efficient development processes.”
  • Your company boasts a large executive team and values diverse perspectives in decision-making.

However, this approach also has its drawbacks. Separate roles may increase the risk of misalignment and communication challenges between product and technology teams. Decision-making processes may slow down, requiring consensus between two leaders. 

Of course, several other factors must also be weighed in this decision-making process, such as your company's stage and objectives. Early-stage or venture-backed companies may prioritize finding product-market fit through rapid product iterations, benefiting from a dedicated CPO or a product-leaning CPTO. Conversely, later-stage companies seeking growth through scaling may prefer an experienced technologist in the CPTO role.

Amid this evaluation, don't overlook perhaps the most crucial consideration: the human element. “At the end of the day, an org structure is a tool that is used to implement the strategy and the vision and is influenced not just by what we want to achieve but also the people that we have and the stage of the product company,” shares Raviv Levi, CPO at Sift. Finding an individual who not only possesses the requisite talent but also aligns with your firm's culture business goals may be the linchpin for long-term success. Ultimately, having the right person in your company is paramount. When you find that individual, empower them to shape the organization they lead.

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