May 22, 2012
The CTO fills a critical role in a technology startup. The title is really broad, and people tend to cling to different aspects of it, but what do you really need your CTO to do in a startup? Here’s a quick breakdown for aspiring Chief Technology (or Technical) Officers.
‘Chief’ communicates hierarchy and seniority. A chief, by definition, is a management role. There is a big misconception about who should be a CTO. A CTO shouldn’t necessarily be the smartest code developer because, as a CTO, they must by definition be an integrator and a manager of people. CTO’s have to understand the entire organization. Specifically, they need to understand what all of the technical parts of the team are up to, what all the players in the organization are up to, and what the programs are that are underway. Moreover, this must be done in a way that allows one to zoom into the individual details while keeping the overall technology strategy in mind. As a CTO, you must know the vision for the company’s IP. You must avoid being pulled down into the weeds and stay at a high enough level to maintain the strategic level vision.
‘Technology’ or ‘Technical’ is the obvious part of the job description. The CTO needs to understand the technology. But there’s actually more to it than that; The CTO has to have the ability to share his opinion while engaged in any major business activity. The CTO is someone you do not want to have hidden in the basement, but rather someone to have front and center applying the technical vision of the company. It’s important for the CTO to be able to project that technical vision on the spot, by going into a meeting or strategic discussion either internally or externally, be hit with a new set a parameters “Would this work with x?” or “Would this work with application y?” and, at the drop of a hat, have a sufficiently broad understanding of the technology and operating details to not only answer the questions but extrapolate: “Yes, and this is how we’d do it.” That kind of knowledge is unique, and as your company reaches any kind of scale it becomes more difficult. The ability of a CTO to do that will give you the ability to advance the development agenda by leaps and bounds, not just by setting a direction, but responding well to shifts in the landscape. Nothing restores more confidences in a strategic partner or investor than a technical leader who can, not only articulate what has been done, but seems to have a clear command about what needs to be done in the future given the variability and uncertainty of that future.
“Officer” means liability and responsibility across the organization. Like a board member there is a certain amount of governance required. The ideal CTO should know the business strategy and operational strategy to an extent where he can be a functional participant and contribute outside the technical domain to the executive. CTOs use knowledge of the technical domain to inform strategic decisions while understanding and being comfortable with the other core areas of the company. Ideally the CTO should be able to take over core preparations, engage, and possibly close a commercial relationship while stepping in for the CEO. Having these skills makes one a much more effective CTO.