Is there any difference between a CTO and Product Manager?
Do you need one or the other, or both?
What are the role’s responsibilities?

All great questions. To sum it up as succinctly as possible, here’s a one-liner:

In a SaaS or app-based business, a Product Manager focuses on the what, while the CTO focuses on the how.

There is quite a big difference in the roles, and as a software business you need to fulfil both. As an early stage company this could be one person, but as the business grows its best to separate out these roles.

As a SaaS or App-based company, there should be a big emphasis both on what you build and how.

What you build is critical because this determines your effectiveness in the market. The features you build that shape your product can be drawn from internal innovation, looking to the industry and finding gaps to fill, and talking to your customers to find out how you could serve them better. Therefore the features can become key differentiators in a competitive space, and give your potential customers more reason to pick you over the competition.

This role falls to the Product Manager. It’s the product manager’s role to plan out the roadmap, speak to the stakeholders to prioritize features and manage the available resources to get them implemented. This can be a challenging role, as features ideally should be prioritized to meet the company’s broader goals and initiatives, and planning should be geared toward increasing business value.

Product managers should essentially live and breathe the product. They should know it inside out, speak to customers, gather feedback, drive innovation and push the roadmap to increase the value of the product.

How you build your product is also a critical piece of the puzzle. By choosing the most appropriate software stack, architecture, methods and available tools, you can greatly optimize your costs of development, maintenance and infrastructure. These choices also have an impact on the speed at which features can be implemented and how easy and cost-effective it is to provide support and maintenance. As you can see, these choices play a very important role and can lead to great (in)efficiencies in the business.

These choices fall to the CTO. It’s the role of the CTO to do the research and have the industry knowledge in order to choose the most effective tools and methods, and guide the product manager on these choices.

Often the CTO begins as the first product manager in a new company. As the company scales, this role expands and a product manager is brought on board to manage some of the workload. The CTO role then moves up, and typically maintains a strong voice around the table, being in a very good position to make cost/benefit trade-off decisions, because they’d have knowledge of how much initiatives cost on the engineering side, and what their project benefit is on the product side.

What if your company doesn’t have either of these roles? Let us help!

At GEM we can provide product management as a service, as well as a virtual CTO role. These services are provided on a monthly retainer structure, and we aim to provide tremendous value to your business by helping to choose the right features to build, manage the development and delivery process, and provide the industry expertise to guide how the features are implemented.

If this is something that interests you, please contact us to see how we can assist.


About Stephen Fourie

I've been a professional software developer since 2004, and running GEM since 2010. I've developed software for many different industries including automotive, logistics, finance and entertainment. I'm the GM at GEM Custom Apps where we build custom web and mobile apps for businesses.I love my wife, my dog, cars and gadgets. And coffee! I'm an Ironman 70.3 finisher, beginner skateboarder, xbox gamer and digital nomad :)