Simone Basso first came across the role of chief product and technical officer (CPTO) at his previous employer, Just Eat, six or seven years ago. One chief officer left the company, another semi-retired and the company decided to replace them with one person to do both jobs.
Basso thought the decision was inspired, particularly as tech companies began offering tech as the product in the first place. It sparked an interest in combining product and technical roles that Basso continues today as CPTO of Italian tech company WeRoad.
But WeRoad is far from the only company to take the leap in combining two roles that once required different skills. Epicor recently announced that it is combining the posts of chief product officer and chief technology officer, joining a long list of companies that are at least having the conversation about merging the jobs – if not outright adopting it. Many are in the fast-moving startup sector, but increasing numbers are from long-established businesses looking for efficiencies in their operations.
Combining product and technology roles can streamline decision-making
The reasons for adopting a CPTO model are multifarious. Tech now underlies whole business strategies, so it makes sense to squarely align products and services with the tech that drives wider business goals. Combining the roles also enables faster decision-making around product development and deployment.
Sarat Pediredla is CEO of global tech consultancy Hedgehog Lab, one of many companies to combine tech and product roles into one CPTO. According to him, unifying these roles can streamline decision-making, simplify communication and foster an integrated approach to tech and product strategy. “It eliminates the ‘middleman’, enabling faster decisions to be made and creating more efficient outcomes,” he says.
But the change has, he admits, caused some issues: “It also presents challenges such as potential conflicts of interest and the risk of diluting focus.” CPOs are usually seeking to meet market demands, rapidly innovating and occasionally cutting technical corners to get a product out to market. CTOs are more often focused on maintaining the long-term tech stack within a company, and so will frequently advocate to go slower. “Combining these roles may lead to neither technically sound nor product-optimised compromises,” he warns.
Which businesses are right for a CPTO?
Despite those potential pitfalls, Hedgehog Lab decided to go ahead with combining the roles – to good success. “Is it sensible? It likely depends on the specific context of the company. It might make sense for startups or smaller businesses, where agility and fast decision-making are essential. It certainly works for us,” says Pediredla. But he observes that others may decide differently: “Keeping the roles separate in larger, more complex organisations could allow for the necessary checks and balances.”
Basso believes that combining the roles is a net positive, where it’s possible. Having one person overseeing both aspects of a business frees up the CEO because they are no longer required to be the arbiter between competing interests and competing teams. “It makes decision-making much faster because there are fewer points of debate and conflict,” he says. “You just want to have one voice at the executive table.”
But it isn’t all plain sailing. A CPTO needs skills that will benefit both teams. He finds that many CPTOs are firmly from one background or the other and biased towards one team. That can present difficulties when combined with the personal people-management skills that are required at an executive level. “It’s easier to go from an engineering background to become CPTO,” he says. “You can learn the products if you have a little bit of business sense.”
Finding the right person for the role
It’s not just the company and how it works that must be carefully weighed up before deciding whether to combine these roles. Deciding who will fill the shoes of the combined CPTO position is also important. The demands on an individual in the CPO and CTO roles are different and being able to thread the needle between them is vital.
“A lot boils down to being able to balance these divergent interests,” says Pediredla. “Either way, the model must be carefully considered and tailored to the company’s existing and future needs and challenges.”
There’s an element of the CTO speaking truth to the CPO’s power, says Ratcliffe, which can be difficult if it’s just one person. “You have a tension between the technology and what’s working for the product,” he says.
Picking candidates is also less preferable than the right person for the job making themselves known naturally through the course of doing business. Steven Ratcliffe’s journey to becoming CPTO at tech company Eque2 began in the pub over Friday night drinks. There, his company’s technical team and product teams would often disappear into their own corners of the tavern to drink with their respective teams – and would barely intermingle. “I was one of the few people who enjoyed both sides of that conversation,” he says. That helped him to be accepted as a neutral arbiter over both teams when he migrated into the CPTO role.
Managing people can be problematic for new CPTOs. “You need to be able to read a much wider spectrum of people and ideas,” says Basso. For Ratcliffe, avoiding favouritism is vital to his ongoing success. Keeping tension and healthy competition between teams can help drive the businesses but, he says, being a CPTO is a lot like being a parent: “You don’t favour one over the other.”