5 reasons to combine the CTO and CPO roles

Customer experience is king. It's time for the C-Suite to have a new role that combines Chief Technology Officer and Chief Product Officer
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When LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner announced in early February that he would step down on June 1, it was a noteworthy change at the professional networking platform that he had led for more than a decade. What also caught my eye, however, was the choice of his successor: LinkedIn product head Ryan Rolansky.

They say it takes three or four to make a trend, so I’m calling one now on product leaders getting promoted to CEO. Other examples at high-profile companies in recent years include Adam Mosseri at Instagram, Sundar Pichai at Google, and Thomas Kurian at Google Cloud.

These moves signify the growing stature of product heads – chief product officer (CPO), senior vice president of product, or whatever the actual title may be – in shaping company strategy. And this growing stature has further blurred lines between the CPO and another senior executive: the chief technology officer (CTO).

Digital transformation has brought overlap to the CPO and CTO roles.

I’d even suggest that at many companies the CPO and CTO should no longer be separate positions. The elimination of a C-suite chair may seem counterintuitive at a time when so many organizations are adding them – chief customer officer, chief data officer, chief innovation officer, chief culture officer, etc. – but digital transformation has brought a great deal of overlap to the CPO and CTO roles, and many companies can move faster and be more effective if they consolidate the responsibilities under one person.

[ Are you hiring with an eye to the future? Read 5 flourishing and 5 fading IT careers. ]

Here are five reasons why that’s true.

1. The CPO job description has changed

The product chief has long been a key figure in the C-suite or upper management, responsible for understanding customers and the market and guiding products from conception to production, including all facets of research, design, prototyping, and development.

As digitization forces businesses to align resources around delivering the best possible customer experiences, product heads have seen their role in driving the company vision intensify. It’s no longer enough for these executives to simply deliver good products: They have become key drivers of the company’s culture and business objectives. Simply put, they wear bigger hats these days, and that’s bound to create some duplication.

CPOs wear bigger hats these days, and that’s bound to create some duplication.

2. The definition of "product" has shifted

As businesses operate in today’s digital landscape of sky-high consumer expectations and unprecedented choices, the notion of “product” has spread beyond traditional yardsticks like quality, features, and functions to become a holistic, emotional assessment of whether the company and its offerings deeply grasp what customers think, feel, say, do, and want.

As a result, it’s no longer enough for product chiefs to merely decide what should be in products, to own product roadmaps, and to lead product management. Rather, they must act as the voice of the customer across the organization, seeing things as customers see them and steadfastly holding the company’s feet to the fire on customer experience.

As venture capital and private equity firm Insight Partners has observed, “The modern chief product officer is heavily focused on interacting with and engaging stakeholders. He or she is constantly seeking external feedback to help guide a product to create positive business outcomes. The CPO is hyper-focused on driving change and problem-solving.”

[ Read also: Meet the Chief Transformation Officer: 8 key tasks for this new role. ]

3. The CTO's role is sometimes fuzzy

Chief technology officers came into vogue in the ‘80s as the information age started to take hold. The CTO was already a common position at technology companies, but now organizations outside the sector decided they needed a senior executive who understood technology and how it could be leveraged for competitive advantage.

The CTO’s precise role and responsibilities depend on the company, and the job description can get murky. According to Gartner, “the chief technology officer is one of the least understood and most broad of all C-suite positions. The role is often tasked with pursuing multiple abstract goals such as “driving innovation,’ ‘identifying emerging technologies’, or simply ‘managing IT operations.’ Success and progress in these areas can be difficult to quantify, leaving the role inconsistently defined.”

4. The how, what, and why of product should no longer be separated

It’s often been said that the CTO is responsible for the “how” of the product and the product head for the “what” and “why.”

This reinforces the question of why the CTO and CPO should be separate positions. In the era of digital transformation, it’s often more effective to have a single executive with a dual focus. This person is concerned with how the underlying technology aligns with business priorities while also championing for the customer and making sure products viscerally delight users.

In other words, they have oversight of all three – the “why,” the “what,” and the “how.” Companies today should avoid splitting up that triad and have a leader who is both internally and externally oriented, with all roads leading to the customer.

Companies today should have a leader who is both internally and externally oriented, with all roads leading to the customer.

This is especially true of software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers, whose emphasis usually isn’t on technological breakthroughs – as was the case, say, during the early days of Google – but on having a deep understanding of the business problems they’re trying to solve and whether their solution does it well.

5. A combined CPO/CTO can break down silos

The CPO/CTO needs to build a strong cross-functional leadership team across design, product management, engineering, and operations. And that same customer-first thinking must apply to all those disciplines.

For example, a good engineer is an engineer who understands the customer problem they are working on, not just the technical one. It is less about having a single leader than about creating a unified, customer-centric culture across the whole product and technology organization. Having a single leader simply helps with that.

My strong sense is that companies without separate CTOs and product heads are nimbler and more sharply focused on customer experience. Thus, my advice to many companies is to consider the executive moves at LinkedIn, Instagram, and Google. They reflect today’s reality that products are no longer just products and technology is no longer just technology – they’re just different sides of the same customer experience coin.

With the mad skills and expanded responsibilities so many of today’s CPOs hold, no wonder some of the best product heads are being elevated to CEO.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Kaj van de Loo is Chief Technology Officer at UserTesting, a human insights platform. He runs everything from design and product management to engineering and operations. Before that, he was Chief Product Officer at ForeSee. He also has held executive positions at Oracle and SAP.