On Being A Startup CTO03 April 2018
An old co-worker asked me the other day if I enjoy the relaxed and elevated position of CTO. This took me by surprise as I find my role to be neither relaxed or particularly lofty. In fact, I love the role as it is as varied and hands-on as a technical role can get. Then there is the business side (investors, marketing, HR etc). My days are never dull.
A lot of writing on startups share an important point about any role in an early stage startup.
You will never perform one single role.
Whether the Founder, C(EO/TO etc) or an early employee, you’ll take on whatever task needed to grow the business. I’ve read articles from CEO’s describing going from cleaning toilets into investor meetings. These stories are all true and relatable, especially in the very early days.
For anyone thinking about moving to the role of CTO for a startup, it’s worth evaluating what you want from the job. If you want to work on R & D all day while your team get stuff done, this role is not for you. If you want to sit and be the boss and manage a team, this role is not for you. If you want to build a company by developing something new and if you can create and execute the strategy to do so, then it may be the job for you.
Eric Ries stated:
“The CTO’s primary job is to make sure the company’s technology strategy serves its business strategy,”
I might go so far as to say:
“A CTO’s primary aim is to design and execute the technical strategy that delivers the business strategy while adding value to the company.”
That is pretty similar but adding value across the business is a key element of the role. Whether that is ensuring that product features go out on time or hiring the best team. It is usually by ensuring the application of technology is done right.
The role can actually be broken down into responsibilities:
Technical Strategy - Defining what technically needs to happen. What technology can be acquired or built to help the business deliver on its strategy and how you are going to do it.
Strategy Execution- Taking the above and actually executing and refining it. What’s your product look like and how will it be built. But also how technology is used within your company. GSuite or Office 365? Laptops or desktops? Could a particular technology (think AI, Blockchain etc) add real value? Can your platforms and applications integrate to enable your employees?
Evangelism - Be the public face of technology for the company. Intertwine yourself in all departments and talk to everyone. I do mean everyone as well. Promote internally as well as externally. If your staff are not excited about your technology how can you expect your customers to be?
How do you achieve all that? You end up adopting a lot of different roles.
Owning the Technology - This really is taking ownership of the design and executing of the strategy. Work with the business, listen to its needs. This is the business side in many ways. You will interact with many departments and the board. You need to be able to take what is being asked of you and produce a credible and innovative strategy. Once you have sign off you then need to nail delivering it.
Being the Chief - This is the hands-on part. In my experience, this covers everything from capturing the requirements through to ensuring the deployments are working. You will need to be a project manager, scrum master, technical architect, developer and tester in this role. You will need to have operational skills for the technology you are using to build and deploy your product. You also need to be a great HR manager as herding nerds is no mean feat. If you have good mediation skills for when different departments clash that will help.
I haven’t even scratched the surface of whats involved really in this role and I guess it does differ from company to company. I will definitely come back and write more about this soon.