Brad had a great post today on CTO vs. VP Engineering. I can't argue what he says as I believe he hit the nail on the head. I have seen an amazing amount of confusion over these roles out there. Many simply see the CTO as a glorified VP of Engineering. Others use the terms interchangeably (an east coast thing I think).
As the CTO of Raindance I would say I went through phases, and the company probably paid the price a little along the way.
Early on I was just the software guy that got everyone to do the right thing, and work in the same direction. Later, I was much more the VP of Engineering. My focus was always not the let the company "get in trouble", a classic scenario I had seen a dozen times with software engineering projects. Later, as our company became more diverse I really enjoyed touching all the many and varied technologies it took to cross the Telcom/Internet boundary. Only in the last couple years, as we really formed a platform strategy to compete with WebEx did I feel like a real CTO – A tired CTO.
But the more interesting thing I learned on the trip was the difference between "C" level people and VP level people. I like "C" level people that drive the vision without regard to the "how".. A good "CTO" is firmly in the camp of the CEO. Specifically a good CTO should envision how a technology can upset a business, and in lock step with the CEO form a complete vision of "difference". A good CTO should know "grossly" that the technology is possible to deliver with the level of accuracy required for the success of project, but not burdened by, Are my people smart enough? Can we really do it? What if we fail?
By contrast a VP of Engineering is the last line of defense in the world of "practicality". In other words, the VP of Engineering should always approach a problem from the "percent likelihood we can do that" point of view. With a key value proposition of always delivering, on time and working – always - always. The CTO, should not live with *that* burden and should be the protagonist to the rest of technical organization.
Another way to look at it, the CXO team should all be thinking of the next way to upset the world. The VP's and their Directors should be huddling on how to deliver the crazy ass stuff the CXO team is thinking of. Of course, everyone wears a little of both hats, but in my mind that's the focus.
I may be way off here, but that's the way I like it.