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I'm the data team lead at a company of 40ish people. I've been in data/analytics for 7 years total, 5 years as a Data Scientist, the past 3 as lead here. The CTO is retiring and he told me today he recommended to the CEO that I be offered his position. Now, I'm no world-class machine learning practitioner or software developer, honestly probably average. Where I've been best is R&D, turning what the high-ups want into data/engineering problems, and generally being the go-to person when someone needs a tech face in a client pitch.

I have no qualms about taking the role itself, it'll be a significant pay raise and I already have a really good rep with everyone in the company that I need to. It's also a small enough company that there's no danger of me becoming wholly detached from the technical work. However, I'm worried that if/when it ever comes time to move to a new company, it'll either:

  1. Look like title inflation.
  2. Be too high of a title to be considered for lower level roles at other companies, particularly ones of a similar size.
  3. Be sacrificing some level of technical experience that'd I'd need to move to other companies.

Perhaps I'm overthinking it and/or it's a certain amount of imposter syndrome, but any input/advice on how to approach this would be much appreciated.

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  • 2
    How technical is the CTO role at your company compared to your current role?
    – sf02
    May 4 at 20:58
  • 9
    Can't you carry two titles, officially, for exactly this reason?
    – 134121
    May 5 at 15:10

5 Answers 5

128

You're definitely overthinking this one.

If the new role offered fits you now, you should take it now.

Sometime in the undefined future, you may desire to change roles or companies. You will be able to tailor your future resumes to whatever jobs you are applying.

There's no law that says you can't retitle yourself "Lead Data Scientist / CTO" if you're applying to positions at Fortune 50 companies. It's accurate and opens the conversation for you to brag about how you managed the tech stack for a 40 person team.

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  • +1 for "to brag about how you managed the tech stack for a 40 person team." That can't never hurt you.
    – Mandrill
    May 6 at 18:49
  • +1, especially because if you tell them you don't feel up to the challenge, they'll take you at your word and not offer the position again.
    – Shadur
    May 7 at 9:40
  • 1
    This one right here. I've been in this position where I was offered a "Director" position while my resume only supported a senior engineer capability. When I left that position (inevitably), I just re-tailored my resume to fit what I was looking for. It wasn't even a footnote in anyone's mind during the interview process. May 8 at 1:06
49

This new title (CTO) at a startup won't hurt your chance when you apply for new jobs at bigger companies in the future.

I have known people who worked as CTO's for startups. A few years later, they moved on to new jobs, and worked as directors, senior managers, or even managers at much bigger companies. There have been no issues.

People do understand the differences between big and small (startups) companies in terms of management systems. The hiring managers of big companies won't make an issue out of your job title that you have when you work for startups.

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  • 10
    This is what I was thinking. At a small company, the CTO is often just the most senior technical person or the one with the most expertise in the product, not a real "bigwig".
    – Barmar
    May 5 at 14:44
  • 2
    One of my colleagues went from CTO at a startup to something like "senior data scientist" at a bigger one.
    – Davidmh
    May 5 at 20:17
17

The issue isn't the title. Titles aren't easily mapped between companies. I have seen title inflation where all 6 employees are Chief something Officer. I knew a one man company who listed his office address on his business cards as Suite 4: it was in the 4th bedroom of the house.

CTO of a small company doesn't mean that you are locked into CTO of all future companies. You see this all the time with college football coaches. You will see a coach go from being a head coach of a small school to an assistant coach of a big school. Then moving up in responsibility at that school until they jump to an assistant coach of an even bigger school.

When you move onto a bigger company your CTO experience will be helpful. Your experience in leading the company technology wise is something not everybody gets to do. You will also be gaining experience in managing, planning, and budgeting.

The next job probably won't be as CTO, but it should be better than Data scientist.

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  • Yep, titles are fluid. I never remember the "official" title for any job I've ever had when I go to add it to my resume. I just pick something suitable. I've never had an interviewer question me about it or argue with me about the former employer reporting it as something else. I have had recruiters try to get me to inflate them, which I refuse to do. Side note: "Suite 4" Lol. I might have to use this to name my home office. May 5 at 21:03
  • Absolute truth. When I was at the national home mortgage finance company before it was acquired, the running joke was that there were more Vice Presidents (VP) titles than team members that were direct reports (being managed).
    – 杜興怡
    May 6 at 5:55
  • 1
    You made suite 4 thing up didn't you? Because it is hilarious if true.
    – Mandrill
    May 6 at 18:48
  • 4
    No it is true. It was about 20 years ago. He was a management consultant, and didn't want to say he was working from home. May 6 at 19:05
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There's a lot of reasons that people might not hire someone. Having too high a title in your current position is a terrible reason for someone to disqualify you in the future. You can't account for all possible reasons, and this is a hypothetical problem in the future to begin with.

If it's ever a problem, it'll be a problem for very, very few people, and will be a plus for many more other employers.

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  • hypothethical -> hypothetical. But a fun typo. (6 char lower limit for editing.) May 6 at 20:56
0

My first inclination was “Chidi” from the show “The Good Place”, not so much overthinking as indecisive.

Leaders can’t be like that. Maybe that’s the final lesson to learn before you are truly ready to take the promotion.

More importantly: good employers don’t evaluate a prospect’s experience based only on the most recent job title. And, many bigger companies higher former top brass from smaller companies to join their lower ranks with better pay in their big companies.

Your hesitancy is a mild sign of maturity, that you know the seriousness of the offer and that you might therefore be the right person for the position. That said, if you have the chance to learn data leadership on top of data programming, do it.

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  • 1
    I think I have a stomach ache. Why do I always have a stomach ache! :-)
    – Nuno
    May 8 at 2:25

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