After years of working with both startups and enterprise level companies I’ve found that the idea of a CEO is very straight forward. That’s the person in charge. The buck stops with them. The company is run by this person and everyone looks to that person, from inside and out to get the heartbeat of the business and where it’s going. The COO is the person in charge of “operations” so they basically manage everyone and make sure the company is running as well as it can.
But the CTO? It’s fascinating to me that a CTO seems to be the most sought after person in a startup (because it’s actually the most specialist role), and yet, I reckon it’s almost impossible to define accurately for everyone.
For some a CTO is the “Techie” and for others the CTO is the “Tech Strategist” and for others it’s the “Tech Lead” and still for others it’s the “Tech Manager” within a business. Most of the time what the rest of those board level members means when looking fora CTO (I believe) is that the CTO is the person who makes the tech work and does it with some “magic” called “technology” (and they often don’t seem to care how).
I’ve been called a CTO a number of times. The fascinating thing to me is that at the start the CTO is often looked up to in awe, and held in some fascination while the initial stages of a company are taking shape. They are often wheeled out to investors and given pride of place in the startup hierarchy. However, once that company shape has been taken, what tends to happen is that the role is reduced to “the tech doesn’t work so fix it”. While that is a role of the startup CTO, it does a massive disservice to the CTOs out there who understand that the 80% of the tech is the easy bit (if you know what you’re doing). The last 20% of the grind of making something stay stable over time and continue to develop it as well, while keeping everyone as happy as possible is hard and in my experience far more complicated than “just fix it”.
So, what is a CTO?
In my view a CTO is quite simple. They are the person who has to understand the business and develop the right technologies to achieve the business goals.
They don’t actually have to be a techie, although they have to know enough about technology to know when they are being messed around by developers, which usually means that they are a techie somewhere in their deep distant past.
My big point is that unless they can understand the business and understand how technology fits in the strategic mix of the organisation, then they are not a CTO.
Do not give the title of CTO to someone who has no capability of understanding the business side and discussing it. You then have no way of bringing the CTO type of person in above them, and eventually you will have to.
So, hire good business based CTOs (that’s a given) but when things start to look more complicated and difficult (usually after a few months of work), that is often an effect of the company changing around the tech (how many pivots does a CTO have to deal with???). It’s not an incompetent technologist or technology partner necessarily messing with you. It is probably just that the nuance of the business has been found, and you’re in the 20%.
For a good CTO, starting is easy. Maintaining and developing after the initial phase is hard. Choose your CTO on the basis of their experience, and trust them to know what is going on. Assume they aren’t incompetent when things start going not quite the way you want. Unless you’re a CTO, you probably can’t tell if they are incompetent anyway. Unfortunately, as soon as you stop trusting your CTO your startup is probably on it’s way to failing. Trust them, and you’ll have a fighting chance of becoming a unicorn (well… maybe).