CTO vs. Principal Engineer

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There’s a funny thing about titles in the startup space.  Titles are cheap and equally meaningless.  I find it useful to take a given title and then calibrate against the size of the organization.  A CTO of startup with less than 10 people does not do the same job as the CTO of a company with over 100 people.

In most startups the CTO title is a placeholder.  It marks some future position where the founder is likely to end up after many years of growth.  You’re not the CTO yet, but you will be when one is needed.  Until then you’re likely doing a Principal’s job. 

A Principal Engineer is focused entirely on building the product and establishing the underlying architecture of the solution.


Principal Engineer

Product Scope


Research and Development


Business Scope

Strategy and Planning

Systems Design

 A mentor of mine once asked me what I thought is the most important skill of a CTO?  I responded with the obvious ideas about being current on technology and predicting the future.  And I was wrong.

They corrected me by simply stating the #1 job of the CTO is to understand the business.

My perception changed at that moment.  I realized how shallow my thinking was and things are not always as they seem.  It’s not about tech. Everyone is good a tech.  Tech gets you to the table, what keeps you there is the value you unlock with technology.

The job arrives when you’re tasked to apply tech to solve business problems.  The sales team has grown and needs a CRM.  Marketing needs analytics and campaigns built from product data.   The CEO needs reports for analysis and forecasting.  And don’t forget employee churn and the resultant security challenges with account management. 

A modern business has many moving parts and making them work together is the job.  Knowing what to build and what to buy and what can wait.  It’s your judgement and ability to evaluate the benefits to the business while balancing quality – speed – costs that makes you a CTO.

The day you stop only building the product and begin building business systems is the day your company starts to take off.

That’s the day you become the CTO.



I’m looking for great co-founders of all sorts to collect stories and insights from the front lines.  I’d love to hear about your team and challenges and relate any knowledge I can to your situation.  Hit the link below and setup a time to chat.