The role of a CTO

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In this article, I want to discuss the real role of a CTO—the chief technical/technology officer—especially in startups and small to medium companies. I find the CTO’s responsibility almost obvious from one hand, but so misunderstood, especially by business people, from the other hand. I’ve been fulfilling various 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 make. In my view, all the product delivery parts of the business should sit under the CTO or report to the CTO, while the CTO’s role should also include 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 for the recruitment, 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, translating 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. In my view, it differentiates between “a technical lead” (who tends to write code) and a CTO (who 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 needs to make a decision, he or she can’t defend the person on trial. The prosecutor can’t judge fairly. Each lawyer has a role in the show, and those roles are explicitly distinguished. The same thing, in my view, applies to 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 it. 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 address all the “looking for a co-founder” social media adverts: If you advertise that you are looking for a CTO and require the CTO to write computer code, you need to be aware that professionals are making fun of you. It’s better to advertise that you are looking for a technical lead who would grow into the CTO role or for a developer who would grow into the technical lead role, rather than positioning your company as a joke.

A CTO is required to have soft skills

A CTO is required to have soft skills

Masking the Technical People

One of the most important tasks of the CTO, especially in small companies, is to shield the developers and other technical team members from background noise, especially those originating from the business units and clients. This approach contrasts with Agile/Scrum methodology, in which developers are part of the business stand-up meetings. Perhaps this difference explains why Agile projects can be so resource-intensive, overheaded, and sometimes fail in places where they shouldn’t fail. Technical people need isolation, quietness, and a working environment that allows them to concentrate on what they do best: technical skills. If developers are receiving direct requests from the business, you are doomed. The CTO must act as the separation wall.

Veto on Technologies Used

In recent years, we have been inundated with new technologies, from frontend to backend development environments, development tools, server tools, desktop tools, and much more. One factor for a company’s success is to focus on specific targets, which can be achieved by using very specific technologies that align with the expected deliveries. When companies use too many tools or too many types of technologies and environments, they tend to incur massive wastage in maintenance and training for those systems. Some technical and business people also tend to become enamored with specific technologies (i.e., insist on using specific technologies) instead of focusing on the targets and choosing the best technology to achieve 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 for many other technological aspects in the organization, such as IT architecture, business continuity and redundancy solutions, release management, and security. The CTO should have the final say on each of these aspects, and even if some of them are transparent to the business, they should be taken very seriously, as the business relies entirely on them: one security hole or privacy breach can take the whole business down.

Soft Skills

I think one of the main challenges of a CTO lies in soft skills. Many technical people lack soft skills; this is almost an epidemic phenomenon when you look at the common engineer. Some engineers are geniuses—they can build amazing things—but when it comes to leadership and the ability to connect with other humans, they sometimes fall short. A CTO must sit between these two worlds—the business people (marketing, strategy, customer service, etc.) and the technical people (developers, infrastructure, architects, etc.). To do this well, a CTO needs to have some sort of hybrid personality and a multidisciplinary 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 🙂





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3 Responses

  1. Jebediah says:

    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]

  2. Hari says:

    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.

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