The role of a CTO
In this article I want to say some words about the real role of a CTO – the chief technical/technology officer – especially in startups and small to medium companies. I find the CTO responsibility almost obvious – from one hand – but so miss understood especially by business people, from the other hand. I’m doing all sorts of web/internet CTO roles since 1997, and currently I’m acting as the CTO of The Event Eco system, an Australian company, and of Startup Realizer, a New Zealand based company. This article and my work are based on 25 years of experience.
The place of the CTO in a startup
The CTO is a key manager in a technology startup and tech companies, a CTO should be a board member and the final decision maker in any technical decisions that the company needs to take. In my eyes, all the product delivery parts of the business should sit under the CTO / report to the CTO,while the CTO role should include some other responsibilities like technical SEO and digital design which I will mention below.
CTO as a leader: team building / recruiting
The main and most important responsibility of the CTO is to be a team leader. It means that the CTO is responsible of the recruit, management, mentorship and mental support of the technical staff as a people’s leader. The technical staff include the developers, architects, designers, infrastructure specialists, and sometimes also business analysts and project managers.
Interface between the technical people and the rest
The CTO should act as the interface between the business (marketing, sales, product design) and the technical team. It means that the CTO is some kind of an interpreter, which translates business requests (“we need an app”) into technical requests (“we are building a react native app”).
A CTO is not a coder but should know how to code
A CTO must understand coding and algorithms – usually better than most members of the technical team – but a CTO shouldn’t do any coding work at all. I actually need to write it as “must not” and not “should not” as I’m very strict with that specific CTO requirement – as in my eyes it differentiates between “a technical lead” (which tends to write code) and a CTO (which shouldn’t write any code), I will explain why. I like to compare it to the judicial system: in a trial, the judge, the defense attorney and the prosecutors are all lawyers (or have some kind of a legal background). But because the judge need to make a decision, he or she can’t defend the person in trial. The prosecutor can’t judge fairly. Each lawyer has got a role in the show, and those roles are explicitly distinguished. Same thing, in my eyes, is with technical decisions. The technical space is highly complicated, and includes a variety of skills,methodologies and ways of work. The CTO needs to be the judge of what to do, and how to do. If the CTO is writing code in your organization, then something is substantially wrong in the way your organization is functioning and making decisions. This is true not only for medium to large companies, but also for small startups. Specifically I want to relate to all the “looking for a co-founder” social media adverts: If you advertise that you look for a CTO and require the CTO to write computer codes, you need to be aware that professionals are making fun of you. Better if you advertise that you are looking for a technical lead that would grow to the CTO role, or for a developer that would grow to the technical lead role, than positioning your company as a joke.
Masking the technical people
One of the most important tasks of the CTO, especially in small companies, is to separate the developers and the other technical team members from all the background noises, especially those which originate from the business units and clients. This is completely in contrast to how things are done in Agile / Scrum methodology in which developers are part of the business stand meetings. Maybe it can explain why Agile projects are so resource consuming and overheaded, and sometimes even fail in places where they shouldn’t fail. Technical people need isolation, quietness and a working environment which allows them to concentrate on what they do best: technical skills. If developers are getting direct requests from the business – your are doomed. The CTO must act as the separation wall.
Veto on technologies used
In recent years, we are flooded with new technologies – frontend to backend development environments, development tools, server tools, desktop tools and a lot more. One of the factors for a company to succeed, is to be focused on specific targets ,and this can be achieved by using very specific technologies which fits with the expected deliveries. When companies are using too many tools, and/or too many types of technologies and environments – they tend to fall into a massive wastage and maintenance and training work for those systems. Some technical and business people also tend to fall in love with specific technologies (i.e. insist on using specific technologies) instead of looking at the targets and choosing the best technology to get the fastest and best results. The CTO should be the final decision maker on any technology standards that the organization wants to adopt.
Additional CTO responsibilities
The CTO is also responsible on many other technological aspects in the organization, like – the IT architecture, business continuity and redundancy solutions, release management and security. The CTO should have the final say on each of those aspects, and even if some of them are transparent to the business – they should be taken very seriously as the business is completely relying on them: one security hole or a privacy breach can take the whole business down.
I think, that one of the main challenges of a CTO are in soft skills zone. Many technical people just lack soft skills, this is almost an epidemic phenomena when you look at the common engineer. Some engineers are geniuses – they can build amazing things – but when it comes to leadership and ability to connect to other humans – they are sometimes not as good as. a CTO must sit in between those two worlds – the business people (marketing, strategy, customer service etc) and the technical people (developers, infrastructure, architects etc). To do it good, a CTO needs to have some sort of a hybrid personality and multi disciplinary set of interests and skills.
Well, I think this is covering most of what I wanted to say about the CTO role. See you around, until next time 🙂
Great job conflating the role of a CTO with an Architect and CIO. Guess we can just fire these guys and hire you?
Small / early stage and even series A stage startups don’t really have the ability to hire a CIO, architects and all the other IT skills which the CTO need to accomplish for.
[I thought I would leave this comment even that it is negative and commented by a specific a$$hole from Sydney which I personally know to as proven to be stupid and rude, since it may help others understand why a CTO of a startup is usually different role to a CTO in large corporates]
I totally agree with your view on CTO… Even I feel the same way but these days it’s very hard to find such qualities in any CTO.