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What does a Startup CTO do?

I've noticed people keep talking about CTOs here, and I thought it would be useful for people to say what their particular idea of a CTO's role is. I'm not looking for some textbook definition; I can search Google as well as anybody.

What I'm asking is ... what do YOU think a CTO's role in YOUR business is or would be?

27 Replies

Roger Wu
3
1
Roger Wu Entrepreneur
co-founder at cooperatize, native advertising platform
In my opinion, the role evolves depending on the size of your company. In the beginning the CTO might be a hands on developer that eventually manages a team of developers just like the CEO is most likely the company's first sales person and then becomes the chief evangelist / face / liaison of the company.
Panos Kougiouris
8
2
Panos Kougiouris Entrepreneur • Advisor
Founder at NeatSchool
In a startup environment, a CTO needs to have very deep technical knowledge of what the company does and how it relates to the industry AND is also very capable (communication/soft skills) to convey that to all other functions AND customers. In my ideal startup, and frankly every startup smaller than say 100 people, the CTO needs to be hands on. He also needs to have technical leadership skills and background to command the respect of the product building team. Then it is guaranteed that he will be talking about what the company really does vs. what he thinks the company should be doing.

In practice, it is very hard to find somebody who can execute both the internally and externally focused role. So most startups settle for a CTO who is either mostly internally focused or mostly externally focused and other executives complement his skills and interests.

A lot also depends on the stage of the startup. In early building product stages, a hands on internally focused CTO is what you need. Later, one who can sit in a customer meeting and convey that the company knows what you they are doing on the technical front becomes equally important.

Finally always remember, the executive function is a team function so always look at what the rest of the team looks like and what skills you are missing. For instance, if your CEO or a VP of Sales/Marketing is an x-engineer who leaves and breathes the space you can more easily afford an internally focused hands-on CTO.
Karl Schulmeisters
18
1
Karl Schulmeisters Entrepreneur
CTO ClearRoadmap

hmm As a startup CTO I wore the following hats

  • Enterprise Architect - aligning technology and business vision
  • Chief Technologist - selecting the technologies and platforms we were going to use in our implementation
  • Program Manager - writing the detailed functional spec
  • Lead Architect - Writing the architectural spec for the product
  • Technical HR - finding and hiring the dev team
  • Corporate IT staff - basically setting up our corporate IT infrastructure (and maintaining it)
  • Project Lead - just that - lead the development team
  • SCRUM Master - run the daily standups and solve the blocking issues
  • Developer - write code that was not mainline
  • DB Architect - Design the DB schema for the product
  • DB Admin - admin the DB (build scripts for Index regen etc)
  • Lead QA - lead QA
  • Lead ITSupport - field and triage all client problems
  • Technology visionary - plan version 2 and Version 3
  • CIO - pull the information needed for our business ops
  • Technical Evangelist - evangelize our technology
  • Social Media Manager - manage corporate social media comms
  • Blogger - blog on subjects related to our product
  • Technical Sales - Enaged in technical sales discussions.


And I'm probably missing some. So this is kinda what I would expect from a CTO in a startup.

John Petrone
2
1
John Petrone Entrepreneur
CTO at LaunchPad Central
Just to follow up on Karl's very good answer, I'd say that a startup CTO needs to be something of a jack of all trades when it comes to technology issues. In the last week at my current early stage startup I've:

- phone screened and interviewed engineering candidates
- run our daily standup meeting
- created and updated tickets in our agile project management tool
- researched a variety of technology directions
- put together and presented a engineering update deck to the board of directors
- revised my 1 year budget
- reviewed and commented on a key sales contract regarding technology issues
- reviewed some code
- managed a variety of SaaS platforms (Github, Atlassian, Slack, Google Apps, PagerDuty, Pingdom, etc)
- did a bit of systems admin work on our server instances
- set up a new laptop for someone
- and found some time to write a little test code too.

To contrast that with previous roles I've had as a CTO of public companies with 100's of employees in my group, I still had overall responsibility for these tasks, just did not normally tackle them myself - when you are a CTO at a startup the buck stops with you for many issues.
Larry Lancaster
3
0
Larry Lancaster Entrepreneur
Always working on the "Next Big Thing"
John and Karl are spot-on, insofar as describing the day-to-day reality of a CTO at a startup is concerned, especially at a lean startup. I also wanted to touch on what can make the CTO role *uniquely* valuable. Firstly, I would back up a step and ask whether you should have a CTO at all.

Consider the following questions:

(1) Is yours a technology company?
(2) Is your technology a substantial part of what makes you different from, or better than, the competition?
(3) Is a technological innovation central to how you will deliver extraordinary value to market?

If the answers to these questions are 'yes', then a CTO role from day 1 probably makes sense. There are other circumstances where it might make sense, but in this situation it would be natural... expected, even. And in such a case, I would expect the CTO to deliver unique value through the following sorts of activities:

(1) inventing and/or productizing the core technology
(2) articulating the importance of the technology and evangelizing its disruptive role in the marketplace
(3) formulating an IP strategy to protect the technology, which may or may not include patents
(4) filing such patents if they are part of the IP strategy
(5) creating the first roadmap to align development with competitive threats and market opportunities
matt
0
0
matt Entrepreneur
Web Developer
Ganesh Arelly
0
1
Ganesh Arelly Entrepreneur
Director at Eliga
In addition to John, Karl's inputs, code review, motivating the developers especially towards organization's goals in technical vertical are the jobs of a CTO.
Benjamin Olding
7
0
Benjamin Olding Advisor
Co-founder, Board Member at Jana
I assume most people are assuming a web/mobile startup on this thread - I'm thinking along those lines at least. For other areas, it's different. A long time ago, I worked for a CTO at a silicon chip startup for example; he had a very different role.

CTOs can do a lot, but I think there's a lot of flexibility in how you define the role depending on who his or her team members are. So, for example, I don't doubt Karl was the Social Media Manager and held the CTO title while he did it, but I'm not sure how helpful it is to highlight that specifically... it really just highlights that when you don't have a social media manager yet and you need one, you have to rely on adaptable people like Karl. His ability to do that makes him a great startup team member, no doubt, but I don't think it makes anyone a better or worse CTO to be able to step up like that.

It might be more interesting to pose the question of what uniquely should a CTO not mess up. In other words, what are some things that only he or she can tank the company on. It's kind of like that line about the Tour de France: you can't win it today, but you sure can lose it.

For me, it's:

1) Technical interviews of your engineering staff (regardless of who ends up managing them and regardless of who conducts the interview)

2) Where do you draw the internal lines between your systems. (The problem with this one is if you do this right, no one will notice you did anything at all.)

That's pretty much it for me. After that, it's great if he or she can be a good startup citizen and work like crazy on whatever they can do - code, manage, recruit, social media I guess... but that's all about contributing, not uniquely contributing - other roles in the company can potentially contribute to those areas too.

Note that both of these are expertise requirements, not hustle requirements. You should pay attention to the startup CTO who seems to not work that hard, yet is never surrounded by drama; that's not necessarily a bad sign. In contrast, you might want to be at least a little suspicious of the CTO who is consistently working 80 hour weeks and having the servers crash constantly. At a minimum, you are severely under-staffing him or her: that's nothing to brag on.

If you have a CTO and do not have a different head of engineering management, then they also need to fulfill the requirements that only a VP of Eng can mess up:

1) Sourcing of technical candidates at a volume high enough that you can make on average one hire per month (or more if you're growing fast - but even if you're not, you need to be able to close technical reqs in a reasonable time span or people start to hate the hiring process - 4 weeks is a good goal).

2) An organizational system of updating and QAing the code base that can still function reasonably well even if the head of engineering is away for 2 weeks.

3) An engineering culture that is neither overly-argumentative nor suspicious of new hires (i.e. inclusive, not exclusive).

4) A product+engineering culture that has product people and engineering people feeling like teammates.

Anything after achieving all that is again bonus in my mind. In other words, if you have that, then increasing your productivity should be a question of spending more money. If you're cash constrained, you might want the VP of Engineering to also be coding, for example, to add to your productivity without spending more. However, if you don't have the above, then adding money generally just creates a lot of drama, not more output. Note that none of the requirements in theory require technical expertise, but in practice it's unrealistic to think you'll achieve #2 or #3 without it.

If your CTO is the head of engineering and also the head of product, then I'd argue he or she better also be a co-founder... And once your title is co-founder, I'd argue it doesn't matter what else your title also is: you are responsible for cash flow and hiring (full cycle: sourcing, screening, closing, retaining). If you do that well, nothing else that you do really matters (I mean, you'll work hard and you'll feel like it matters, but you're probably in good shape regardless). If you do that poorly, nothing else that you do will make up for that failure unfortunately.
David Schwartz
0
1
David Schwartz Entrepreneur • Advisor
Multi-Platform (Desktop+Mobile) Rapid Prototyping + Dev, Tool Dev
"2) Where do you draw the internal lines between your systems. (The problem with this one is if you do this right, no one will notice you did anything at all.)"

Boy, ain't THIS a truthful statement!!! I've been caught in this one a few times over the years, and let go from projects b/c they thought I wasn't doing very much; afterwards, things collapsed b/c nobody had any idea of the actual complexity behind the fine balance I'd created.

There are lots of stories about software managers working with two different developers. One seemed to always have his feet up on his desk, pondering things, and apparently just looking lazy. His work was always done on-time, it was fairly stable, yet he never seemed to rush into any issues like they were 5-alarm fires. He came in at 8 and left at 5, and never saw the need to put in extra hours. But his work was solid.

The other guy was always running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Everything was an emergency. He came in early and left late. He never seemed to have more than 5 minutes to talk about anything as he was always trying to put out fires in his code.

When the Department Head told their boss he needed to cut one of the staff for budgeting purposes, he thought about it and decided to cut the one who always seemed laid-back and lackadaisical; his work was solid, but nobody ever seemed to know what he was working on because there wasn't ever much of a need to get others involved in fixing his messes.

The other guy dodged a bullet, even though it was his own incompetence that was at the root of his frenetic activity and the fact that everybody seemed to know what he was doing because his unstable code and unfocused work seemed to impact everybody in the organization.

This is a classic issue when basing your evaluations of tech people on appearances rather than results.
Karl Schulmeisters
0
1
Karl Schulmeisters Entrepreneur
CTO ClearRoadmap

Benjamin - to some extent I'd suggest you are describing the role of a CTO in a SMB org rather than a startup.

.

My point about being the social media manager is that in a startup, the CTO wears as many technology associated hats as is necessary to get the startup off the ground. Once you start generating revenue (and I roped in the strategic growth plans into the V2 and V3 vision) you can start hiring staff to do some of this

And this is where being the technical HR manager comes into play. as a startup CTO you need to be on top of where your weaknesses are and hire for those soonest

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