July 12, 2021

Startups need to stop dividing tech and product

A combined product and technology leader in the C-suite can help create better products, simplify decision making and avoid information silos.

Gregor Stühler

4 min read

Mikael Söderberg, CPTO of scoutbee.

In the early stages of my company, my engineering and tech background was enough to lead most product, data and tech decisions. But when the company started growing and the need for excellence in product and engineering rose, that job got a lot harder. My expertise  alone was no longer enough. I needed an expert. 

That meant support on both engineering and product, and like most startups, my first instinct was to hire a chief technology officer and a chief product officer. But after I modelled how separate tech and product functions were likely to evolve, I realised this false division between them isn’t helpful for the fast-growing startups of today. 

My conclusion: hire a CPTO — a chief product and technology officer. 

While the name might sound a little like a gold robot from Star Wars, it could become one of the most important roles in tech. 


The traditional division between tech and product  

Most startups have separate technology and product teams led by a CTO and a CPO. Almost all startups have a CTO, but the CPO is a newer kid on the block. More startups are now hiring them given how key product excellence and strategy, and customer and user experience, are for success. The CPO is the leader who knows what needs to be built and why, and the CTO is the leader that knows how to build it. 

In most cases, companies either evolve to be more tech-driven or more product-driven. That’s when friction or even power struggles often arise between the two groups. For example, there’s often disagreement between how much time is assigned to new product development versus dealing with areas needing maintenance or reworking. It becomes harder to avoid information silos between product and engineering teams. 

The solution: combine the two functions under a CPTO.

A CPTO is responsible for understanding customers and the market and guiding products from conception to production, including all aspects of research, design, prototyping and software development and delivery.

The benefits of a CPTO 

Under a CPTO, technical judgements can be made holistically rather than having two leaders arguing it out with a CEO who may not always be best placed to decide. A CPTO model also allows for more effective scaling in management terms with a small, agile c-suite. For example, a CPO would normally be restricted in visibility terms by relying upon one or two deputies — who are rarely able to see across the entire organisation.

A combined remit can be greater than the sum of its parts. In traditional technology teams, developers can become increasingly removed from the trajectory of what they have built. They are also often cut off from living and breathing the customer journey and user experience — even though they also have insights that could help improve the product. 

A CPTO with a clear understanding of the customer journey, the market and the technology can help leverage those insights, ensuring that teams have goals and objectives that are aligned and not in silos. Optimal product and technology organisations must not operate independently, but rather build, enhance, optimise and rationalise together with a shared purpose.

Other practical benefits of combining the two include: 

  • One line of command and a single source of truth for the overall tech vision
  • Centralised decisions on resource allocation 
  • Consistent reporting and communication both upwards and downwards
  • One clear product and technology culture
  • Cost reduction with leaner teams

The search for CPTOs  

While still relatively rare, we are now starting to see more startups choosing the CPTO approach. In Europe, that includes mobility-tech startup Wunder Mobility, online florist Floom, fintech Curve, ecommerce platform notonthehighstreet and foodtech startup JOKR. 

Talent scarcity is a major disadvantage of a hybrid approach. Because one thing is certain — the ideal CPTO candidate does not grow on trees! It is hard to find a product-orientated, commercially-savvy candidate who also has a strong grasp of technical issues. That means a lot of time invested by founders and CEOs to find the best possible candidate. My own search took six months, flying to three countries… and even involved sharing canoeing trips! But it was all worth it to find Mikael Soderberg, our CPTO. 

I hope more founders will realise that a CPTO model can bring rapid and powerful impacts, and your customers of today and tomorrow will be the main beneficiaries. CPTOs are the future.