How to become a CTO?

Andrew Weaver
April 20, 2022

For most C-suite roles there is generally a linear relationship between the skills they develop through their career and the skills required at an executive level. 

The CMO has been on various marketing courses, the CFO has been mastering a balance sheet for years and the sales director comes from the school of hard cold calls.

As for the HR director?  They’ve probably had an HR sensibility since before they left school.

But what of the CTO?

But striving for the CTO role requires a much more dramatic shift of skills from the comfort zone of being behind the keyboard, to the sometimes foreign land of leadership and people management. 

There is another factor why the career learning path for a tech leader is often different to others in a corporate environment.

Many companies, particularly the very large ones, suffer from a managerial concept called ‘The Peter Principle’, where individuals in an organization rise to their own level of incompetence. Essentially they rise through the ranks until their incompetence is found out and they can’t rise any higher.

This results in many larger companies being stuffed full of half-competent managers who have risen to the level above their capabilities.

The rise of an incompetent tech leader is less likely because a lack of technical capability is not something you can easily hide. 

Where tech leaders fall down is in the softer skills, which is often not a natural competence nor is it something they have traditionally received adequate training to overcome.

The Hybrid CTO

Tech > Product > Commerce

So the modern, high-impact CTO needs a hybrid skillset.

They need to bridge Tech-Product-Commerce as the role demands a greater emphasis on commercial and leadership skills than ever before.

Modern tech leaders need to complement their technical prowess with softer skills. The more senior they become, the less technical they can afford to be.

They have to move out from behind the keyboard and become outward focused on strategy, team, customers, and the future.  

They need to learn the art of delegation and leave the code behind.

CTO Jobs Market

As whole industries have become automated and obsessed with digital transformation, true competitive advantage is being driven by human capital and the impact of their senior tech leadership team.

The demand for the high-impact modern CTO is huge and growing.

With an ever-accelerating pace of technological change, the market value and potential reward for a CTOs are significant and those who can deliver this hybrid skill set will find themselves in an even stronger negotiating position.

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Corporate vs. Start Up …. Part 1 (Learning)

Those at the top of the corporate ladder have maintained a focused career path and adapted with obvious success to the changing types of senior responsibility. 

This article shows the career paths and timelines taken by some of the very high profile CTOs who have worked at the likes of Facebook, IBM, Microsoft et al.

But what about the rest of the market and those aiming for CTO roles within the SME market and early stage companies? 

Where it’s more about learning on the job and taking advantage of the opportunities and good timing that emerge through a typical career?

Promotion in smaller companies is often easier to attain and therefore you’re likely to arrive at the CTO role far quicker than if working within an enterprise.

In the start-up and fast-growth world. you can often fall into the CTO role way ahead of schedule …

These are some examples of where CTO appointments are often unplanned and/or unconventional …

1. The Accidental CTO

Even for the more established company finding a new CTO is often an unexpected chore and succession planning is a luxury. Change often happens quickly, with little warning and less preparation.

For the CEO and senior team the departure of a CTO is often a change that can have the most significant impact on the organization and because of this can lead to knee-jerk reactions, decision making, and appointments.

It’s too often decided that the best option is to promote the next in line, an expedited solution to an immediate problem.

Anyone familiar with the regular scenario of a 2nd in command taking over a football club will recognize that promotions of this nature are not always smooth and often very unsuccessful.

2. The Fast Growth CTO

When you’re part of a team managing your way through an early stage, fast growth company they can be heady and exciting times but fraught with constant firefighting and grappling with new challenges.  The excitement and anticipation of what is being built will be enormous but, problems can emerge with if/how the founders and early hires can adapt and more importantly, how their skill set adapts.

As a business experiences a rapid change in demands it can be a particular challenge for the tech founder having to cope with new technology, management, and investor demands that weren’t part of the landscape when it launched.

3. The Accidental CTO

What is the accidental CTO?

From our experience here at CTO Academy, it’s a more regular scenario than you imagine where a company experiences a sudden departure and/or rapid growth and thrusts an unsuspecting senior software developer into the role of CTO.

The recruitment process often boils down to something as simple as the CEO declaring … “you’re the one that knows the tech” or they’re faced with the departure of their star developer and decide to over promote them.

In this scenario, it’s often a case of when, not if, there will be a blow-up. The Accidental CTO needs careful guidance and strong support.

Corporate vs. Start up …. Part 2 (Money)

The most obvious point of difference between joining and progressing through a corporate structure vs. the more unstructured world of smaller companies is security.

Being part of a corporate has its challenges, but enjoying a market rate of pay and a range of perks is generally not part of them.

Meanwhile whilst joining an early stage company is exciting, it likely means you suffer a short-term hit on your income because few start-ups can pay the market rate and most try to balance the drop in salary with stock options.

Work hard today, for jam tomorrow.

We cover elsewhere “some of the realities about start up salaries” but, judging whether that long-term opportunity is worth the short-term hit is down to your judgment.

Is the package their offering sufficiently incentivized or are they taking advantage?

Some start-ups and founders are totally unrealistic about the potential of their company so you need to conduct your own due diligence on whether it’s worth the risk.

You can view it in the short term as a great experience and the reward will be a bonus. But that doesn’t last too long as you never get that time back so you need to make sure it’s the right decision for you.

If you are one of the founders then you need a significant stake in the company but make sure there is a realistic prospect of a reward and understand what you need personally and collectively as the business grows.

Don’t work for nothing for too long and don’t try and hold too tight, be prepared to bring in people who know more than you.

Conclusion

Finding the right career path to a senior tech role will be dictated by the type of company and sector you move towards, alongside your appetite for risk.

The corporate track brings perks, and market salary but lacks impact until at very senior levels. Does it suit you and your personality?

Whereas with smaller companies and startups, it is often a baptism of fire, with a high degree of uncertainty but an intensity that delivers a very sharp learning curve and real impact.

What is consistent across any senior tech role is the need to build your soft skills and be aware that long-term career impact is unlikely to be about your technical skills, however marvelous they might be, but down to your leadership and people skills.

How good you become as a tech leader will be down to your ability to attract and inspire the best people to travel that challenging road with you.

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CTO Academy delivers leadership skills training and career development support to tech leaders from around the world. Our focus is to help them build the leadership skills required to make a real impact at the senior level and to achieve both the impact and the salary they deserve. We provide online courses, private coaching, and career support. You might also be interested in CTO Academy Tribes – our group coaching and peer-2-peer support program where tech leaders are matched with a cohort of like-minded peers to learn and grow together with shared knowledge, experiences, and insight.

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