What is the difference between a CTO and a technical Product Manager?

corporate tips Mar 09, 2022

This is kind of a silly question, as these jobs are so very different. But it is something many do not understand well and so needs a good answer too.  This answer is mainly in the context of technology companies. As a CTO in a service company where technology is not the product is a different animal. 

A CTO understands technology deeply and broadly.  And also, business considerations like development and operations costs, risk and development life cycles of products.  They guide an organization in the use of newer technology, across the organization and all its IT, software, hardware and products.  They would be responsible to see the organization is keeping up with and/or passing competitors to use technology strategically for competitive advantage, cost savings, speed or other advantage in their industry.

In a tech startup, the CTO is often a cofounder. They need to have a deep understanding of technology AND broad understanding of business and even some marketing too ideally.  They must plot a course and vision for what is technically feasible but will also provide some competitive advantage - think “pushing the envelope”. 

They also need to understand the entire competitive landscape.  All possible competitive products and services, really.  And integrate a vision of the future of technology based on direction.  Projecting the future is just one thing that requires many years' experience.  

That means he or she is the main technology thinker, someone who has an in-depth knowledge of all major products in your target market areas.  And can provide some substantial advantage over them all.  But the CTO’s responsibilities can sometimes overlap with the roles and duties of others. 

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In some tech companies, the borders between roles can be confusing.  Good management and a strong CEO will make this clear to all.  Clear lines of accountability are a key to success.  

The main difference between the two positions is that --

One manages technology development and/or direction (a long-term thing) while the other manages a product (a shorter-term thing).  The PM is concerned with getting the next product release out.  What features are next that will drive sales?  Prioritization of programming resources and coordination with marketing and operations too. 

While the CTO is thinking at least one or two years ahead - and sometimes five. Playing the long game, to build sustainable competitive advantage using technology that is not even public yet. And ideally being developed in stealth mode to surprise competitors. 

A Technical Product Manager is usually responsible for managing a single product and can be far less experienced, sophisticated and creative, with less business knowledge and experience too. A CTO views, and has responsibilities across, all or many products.  A PM's knowledge is narrow and specific to one area or product. The CTO needs some high-level knowledge of all products used in the company, ideally.  This may include help and integration with IT and other operational systems that need to connect to each other, too.  They are making sure all technology is compatible in the company, especially as it gets larger. 

The CTO needs to understand business goals, strategy, costs and technology well.  And that requires 15+ years' experience in business. They need to balance the trade-offs between cost, risk, and advantages.  When to hop on newer technologies, etc.  How does a new technology impact marketing? Operation? Internal IT? Even HR? 

A good CTO has been an Engineer of some type, initially for 5+ years.  They are trained in the disciplines of engineering, some science, logic and more.  That is the only way to reach "Expert Level".  Then they become an architect (in software, anyway).  Then a manager of people to learn management and more about business. And then a Senior Executive to understand the larger picture of business across all the disciplines (and personalities) of sales, marketing, operations, finance, product development and whatever industry they operate in too.

No doubt some of this is "On the job training" and the school of hard knocks - as no university anywhere can teach this stuff.  Both titles would need to learn Project Management skills (PMO certification or equivalent experience) also after serving several years as an engineer first.  

And that is why a CTO makes far more than a PM who is much more "market and customer" oriented and focused on that short-term.  And is more of a coordinator of resources and multiple departments than a product creator.  However, never confuse a Project Manager with a Product Manager.  They are also vastly different, even though they have some overlapping in skills too. 

So being a Product Manager can be an early steppingstone in a career path of a CTO.  But they are likely different career paths, and becoming a CTO requires vast technical experience.  At least a good one. 

I hope this helps you understand, recruit and structure your organization better.  Team is everything and if you start with the wrong one your chances of success are low. 

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Bob Norton is a long-time Serial Entrepreneur and CEO with four exits that returned over $1 billion to investors. He has trained, coached and advised over 1,000 CEOs since 2002. And is Founder of The CEO Boot Camp™ and Entrepreneurship University™. Mr. Norton works with companies to triple their chances of success in launching new companies and products. And helps established companies scale faster using the six AirTight Management™ systems. And helps companies successfully raise capital.

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