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I've worked at a startup for 3.5 years. Started as a Developer/Electrical Engineer, promoted to Product Owner July 2019, now another role change is coming my way. It's going to be a pre-sales consultation role, essentially mapping out how our platform could deliver value to potential clients, and what additional technical features we need to build to deliver that value. We're super startup-y, so I get to choose my title within reason. Eventually, I'd like to be CEO or CTO at this company or elsewhere. Given that, which of the following will put me on the best path?

  • Principal Solutions Engineer

  • Solutions Architect

  • Solutions Principal

Are there any other titles or options I should consider? I know title isn't everything, but given the choice, I feel I should make the most of it.

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    Just be careful with "Engineer" and "Architect". In some jurisdictions, those titles are protected, and that may or may not apply to "Solutions Architect" or "Solutions Engineer". Check to see if that's OK in the area where you work. Mar 31, 2021 at 16:38
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    @FrustratedWithFormsDesigner I'm actually getting my P.E. license in August, so I honestly wouldn't mind my title saying "Engineer"
    – Errorum
    Mar 31, 2021 at 18:41
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    in that case, I say "Go for it!" Mar 31, 2021 at 20:22
  • @FrustratedWithFormsDesigner there is nothing problematic about those terms at all in the US.
    – Tiger Guy
    Mar 31, 2021 at 22:22
  • They're all fine. I don't read into titles much either. Getting closer to sales isn't a bad idea given your goal -- there's a saying that all CEO's are salespeople first (i.e. sell themselves and their co. to boards). A line of positions I've seen others take along the way is something with "Business Development".
    – Pete W
    Apr 1, 2021 at 12:57

2 Answers 2

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By and large, titles are only barely meaningful. Every company has their own way of slinging the things around, and the ones that give out the fanciest titles often give them out in absurd numbers in lieu of pay. to the degree that they matter, what people think they mean is going to vary from person to person. Don't look at the name on the slot. Look at the job description. Figure out what skills and capabilities are necessary to be a "CTO", and what will help you learn those things.

Then take whatever you've concluded with a massive grain of salt, because CXO slots are hotly contested, which means that you basically have no chance to get one at a large company. If you did, you wouldn't be the sort of person who needed to ask for help on how to do it on a stack exchange site. Instead, you're targeting small startups, preferably real small. Getting that sweet, sweet "CTO" title as the second employee ever is a lot easier than grabbing it in a company of 100, which in turn is far more doable than in a company of 10,000. Small companies are invariably weird, with corporate culture shaped heavily by the founders. The trick to getting a top slot, then, is to find them when they're small, and be the thing they need at the time, and be willing to take a risk on them, and be good enough at spotting the good ones from the bad ones that the risk pays off. So good luck with that.

For your current company, the title matters even less, because they know that you got to pick it yourself. The problem with doing it at your current company is that they've probably already got a CTO, which means you'd have to displace them somehow or other. Still... figure out what it is that they do. Figure out what it is that the other higher-ups would like them to be able to do. Work on being better at doing those things. Try to set yourself up as the obvious successor to this person... while not making your interest too keen. I guarantee that having the current CTO see you as a threat will not do good things for your ability to become CTO.

So, having taken all of that into acount, if you really must have a suggestion for the name, I'd say that "Solutions Architect" sounds best. Like I said, though, that's going to vary from person to person.

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  • Thanks for the thorough advice, and spot on for my situation too. I'm at a very small startup (<25 FTE), and was part of the second round of employees hired. I joined from a large company because I believe in our product and its potential. I've often been the person they need, and in this new position will be even more so. We have no CTO now, and our current "VP of Engineering" isn't interested in that role. Will consider all you've written, thanks again
    – Errorum
    Mar 31, 2021 at 18:49
  • @Errorum are you sure your company wants a CTO? If they do, and the VP of Engineering openly does not want the spot, then your path is much simplified. You can openly express interest in the position, and ask the appropriate people what it would take for them to conclude that you're qualified for it. Then work towards that.
    – Ben Barden
    Mar 31, 2021 at 19:05
  • In the past there has been much hand-wringing around the CTO position, I know some politics are involved and I have the rough shape of those concerns, but not the details. That said, I know the person who's VP doesn't want it, and I think this role change will put me as close to that job as anyone else internally. Maybe I'll hit a political brick wall at some point, but overall planning to follow your advice and hope for the best.
    – Errorum
    Mar 31, 2021 at 21:37
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Your title should actually describe what you do, not what you want it to look like. So the best title is "Pre-Sales Engineer," because everybody actually knows what that is. Your other titles don't mean anything. Frankly, CTO of a 25 person company doesn't mean anything, either. Being good at your job matters 1000 times more than your title.

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