CTO’s are a bit of an enigma in the tech world. What do they do, exactly? Are they just paid to sit around and think ‘deep technical thoughts’? Despite their reputation for being known as technical founders who don’t really manage, CTOs have an important role at tech companies. They are technical evangelists to developers, investors, and customers. They support the company’s technical platform and direction, and in order to do that they must be removed from the day-to-day management of developers. The function of a CTO varies from startup to corporation, individual to individual, and team to team. Though the true role of a CTO cannot be tied up into a neat little package, there are similar themes that qualify CTO backgrounds and roles.
What a CTO Does
The Big Picture: A CTO should know everything that a company’s technology can and can’t do, including what to write, what sort of architecture will be needed to support the product, and how long it will take to build something. The mark of a great CTO is someone who can understand the micro and macro, and connect the two in order to support the larger ideas. He/she should also be able to connect the outside world with the company by filtering trends and knowing which direction to take the company in next. Effectively, the CTO aligns technology strategy with business strategy.
Technical Evangelist: A CTO is the technology leader, meaning they have to inspire both employees and customers around a vision. They do this by using their knowledge and unique perspective to convince others that their company is on the cutting edge, understand market needs, and can deliver value internally and externally. As a technical evangelist, a CTO will drive change when necessary.
Culture Leader: CTOs are the technical culture leaders; they act as magnets for tech talent. As the technical leaders, they are able to pick out the best candidates and groom them as emerging leaders. As we know, attracting top tech talent is a tough game. Having a CTO who inspires great engineers to join a startup team who may not have ping pong tables or on-site happy hours is a game changer. A CTO creates an environment where developers work together to create something greater than the sum of all its parts.
Strategy: A CTO works with the CEO on strategy, specifically anticipating any business decision that will influence the technical direction of the company. The CTO advises the CEO on where to make ‘technical bets’ and where to avoid them. CTOs will also provide options and lay out how those options will guide the company’s overall direction.
Product: A CTO doesn’t do day-to-day, but he/she must still work closely with the VP Engineering/product managers to ensure that the work is aligned with the technical vision. The position requires that a CTO doesn’t step on the toes of these VP/manager roles and teams, but rather champions their opinions and feedback. They find ways to inspire technical teams, perhaps holding company hackathons or events to encourage innovation and idea sharing.
Marketing: The CTO is face of technology for the company, and should be able to translate a vision to the tech industry and customers. This includes evangelizing the company vision at conferences, industry speaking events, and press/media opportunities. They should make connections with important industry analysts as well as engage socially through blogs and other social media platforms. The CTO supports the marketing team and works with them to develop strategy that will influence and create a community around the product.
Does Every Startup Need a CTO?
Every situation is different, but across the board, a good CTO won’t hurt. CTOs are especially important if your startup is looking to approach a VC or angel investor; they’ll want to see that the company has a technical expert, financial expert, and an expert at selling whatever it is you’re making (marketing). You might get away with having a CEO/CTO in one for some time, but in a true tech company where the product is dependent on emerging technology, a CTO will be necessary.
Most early stage startups don’t need a CTO on a full time basis, but they are necessary in creating the technical vision. However, if you can afford one, hire a CTO from day one. Startups are usually strapped for cash, and might have a technical advisor or part time CTO temporarily, but as we mentioned earlier, attracting top tech talent is key to success and reliant on setting a superior technical culture. I would also argue that a tech company without a very strong technical executive is incapable of truly evaluating candidates.
Functions: Startup V. Corporation
Every company, no matter what the size, needs direction. There isn’t necessarily a difference between the underlying ideology between a startup and an established company: CTOs at both are pulling the business strategy and the technical strategy together.
Obviously, a startup’s strategy is different than a corporation’s. It’s about speed, getting a product to market fit, and minimizing the burn rate all the while. A startup’s CTO might do a lot more of the coding than they would in a corporation. In fact, a startup CTO may be doing the job of a full time developer early on. A good startup CTO is flexible, and able to deliver fast while keeping an eye to the future.
CTOs at a corporation have a long term focus. They’re going to be looking to the future as well, but they will already have a solid customer base under foot. Therefore, they can focus on expanding current products and emerging markets to exercise their tech prowess. Speed is always important, but it’s not pivotal in a corporation. This CTO will be looking at ways to make the architecture smarter, efficient, and scalable. The biggest difference here is that a CTO at a large corporation does not have to be involved in the building, or the day-to-day. They can truly focus on their role as a technical leader, without directly managing.
Background of a CTO
It’s hard to say what makes a great CTO. Some top technical leaders have no formal background in business or tech, and instead learned by doing and using their natural ability. An MBA or doctorate in an engineering field are common among CTOs. The role requires advanced knowledge of IT and the budgeting/processes that go hand in hand. From an educational viewpoint, this person needs to have either a learned or innate ability to make well-informed decisions when leading their company into new territory.
CTOs are not managers, they are leaders. In other words, they don’t have to do day-to-day managing, but they should absolutely understand how their decisions play out with technical managers and developers. Again, the micro and macro understanding is an important trait for CTOs to become effective leaders.
The overarching quality for a CTO is a vision, and the knowledge to back it up with the architecture, strategy, and so on. Getting there means having a deep and broad understanding of the tech industry, and usually this is an individual who has proven to be an innovator in their previous roles, research, and among peers.
A great CTO is the voice of the customer, the company, and the employee. While they may lack a consistent definition from startup to corporation, the CTO’s main role is to ensure that the company’s technology strategy serves its business strategy.