Product Marty Cagan

What Makes a Great CTO?

The job of the product manager is to define the products that the product development organization will build. Even with the greatest product ideas, if you can’t build and launch your service, it remains just an idea. So your relationship with the product development organization is all important.

I thought I would discuss in this article the leader of the product development organization. I wrote this piece together with my partner Chuck Geiger, as he has run several world-class product organizations. I have often said that if as product manager you have a good working relationship with your product development counterpart, then this is a great job. If you don’t, you’re in for some very tough days. So in the spirit of developing a better appreciation for what makes a great product development organization, we offer this summary.

First, let’s be clear which organization we’re referring to. This is the organization responsible for architecture, engineering, QA, site operations, site security, release management, and usually project management. This group is responsible for building and running the company’s products and services.

The titles vary, but often include VP Product Development, or CTO. For startups, the title is often simply VP Engineering, but as companies get larger, the focus is not solely on engineering and expands to product development and technology overall. In this article, we’ll refer to the head of this product development organization as the CTO – chief technology officer, but feel free to substitute the term your company uses.

There are five major responsibilities of a CTO. We present them here in priority order, and discuss how each is typically measured:


Build an excellent organization, with a strong management team committed to developing the skills of your employees. We typically measure effectiveness here by looking at development plans for all of the employees, the retention rate, and the evaluation of the managers and the overall product organization by the rest of the company.


Make sure this organization can rapidly, reliably and repeatedly deliver quality product to market. There are several measures of delivery, including some measure of the quantity of work delivered, the consistency and frequency of release vehicles, and the quality/reliability of the delivered/launched software. Some organizations just look at reliability here, but productivity in the sense of quantity and quality is the real key.


Make sure the company has an architecture necessary to deliver the functionality, scalability and performance it needs to in order to compete and thrive. The measures for architecture will vary based on your business, but in general we look to track and measure headroom/infrastructure work, and measure site outages due to architectural issues.


Make sure that the architecture and senior engineering staff are participating actively, and contributing significantly, throughout product discovery. If your engineers and architects are only being used to write software then you are only getting a fraction of the value from them you should be. We suggest you track the participation of the product development/technology organization in product discovery (both duration and coverage), and the number of innovations that are credited to the engineering/architecture participant. It is also useful, although a little sensitive, to track changes to schedule post-discovery (churn), as you are always trying to reduce churn.


The CTO will serve as the company spokesperson for the product development/technology organization, demonstrating leadership in the community, with developers, partners and customers. This is often measured by establishing a university relations/recruitment program, and sponsoring or participating in at least two events per year in the developer community.

You may want to go to lunch with your engineering counterpart and discuss what they see as their biggest challenges and how you might be able to help from the product side. Anything you can do to help each other out will go a long way to creating a truly effective overall product organization, able to define and deliver winning products.