What Does a CTO Do and How Does CTO’s Day Look Like?

May 5, 2023

As companies strive to stay ahead of the curve and embrace innovation, the CTO plays a pivotal role in shaping the technological direction of the organization.

But what is that role? What does a CTO do on a day-to-day basis?

To explain, we will delve into a typical day in the life of a CTO, shedding light on their responsibilities, challenges, and contributions. We will be moving from overseeing the development of cutting-edge technologies to formulating long-term technology strategies.

But before I get into that…

A quick overview of a CTO job description

Chief technology officers:

  • Collaborate with cross-functional teams
  • Drive innovation initiatives
  • Ensure that the technology infrastructure and tech strategy aligns with the company’s goals
  • Combine their technical expertise with a strategic and technical vision to propel the organisation forward

That’s a chief technology officer in a nutshell. Join me now as I explore the dynamic and diverse world of a CTO role to gain insights into a daily routine and the impact that job title has on technology and operational management.

What does a CTO do in a company?

As you will see, besides purely technical skills, technology leaders must also arm themselves with soft skills. This non-technical side radically improves team management whether we are talking about startup CTOs or enterprise leaders. In other words, it comes down to management skills and communication as much as strategic thinking.

A day in the life of a chief technology officer

Let’s start with the obvious.

There is no typical day for a chief technology officer, just as there are no typical CTO roles.

So I’ve focused this article on some of the daily issues that commonly emerge in this key leadership role, particularly for a CTO dealing with the business goals and technological needs of an early-stage tech startup and fast-growth company.

If you’re in a similar role, some of this may chime with you.

If not, I hope it’s an interesting and informative peek at life at the CTO coalface.

First thing on my daily to-do list: check no disasters have happened overnight. In order of priority:

  1. No security breaches.
  2. No systems gone down.
  3. No one in the team has quit [early-stage companies are always at risk of this one!]
  4. No angry emails from customer(s) [ditto]
  5. No angry email from the chief executive
  6. Breakfast [don’t forget to eat]

Then it’s off to the proverbial water cooler (online these days) for some of the valuable small talk that oils the wheels within a team. It enables me to get more of an understanding of colleagues, even though it doesn’t always feel like a natural part of my job description.

Here at CTO Academy HQ, our recent small talk generally circulates around reports from our distributed team, knee problems (we’re of a certain age) and the latest crazy marketing idea emerging from the chief executive. Working in a startup is very, very different to large companies, where everyone is close to the action.

Then it’s back into the mix.

Attend a stand-up meeting where the approach will depend on the size of the team (there’s lots of discussion about what is the optimum size of a technology team).

If the team is small then I’m the scrum master and leading the meeting.

PRO TIP: Remember to engage all members of the team, allowing them to get their views across. Confirm goals for the day; leave longer conversations until later.

If the team is larger, then let the scrum master run the meeting. You may choose not to attend all meetings, but I find it useful to attend at least one a week. As an observer, I try to keep my mouth shut unless I need to correct any major issues or talk about wider strategy.


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Onto the CEO and a relaxed chat over a leisurely coffee…

Doh, that rarely happens.

Both of us are busy and it’s more likely to be a couple of words whilst making the coffee. Generally, this provides an opportunity to update with salient facts and anything that is crucial to the CEO and their current priorities. Really important to keep them abreast of any major technical and/or strategic changes emerging on the horizon.

Getting this relationship right is crucial, but the time available is always limited.

Remember, also, that your happiness and success as CTO will often be heavily dependent on how functional your relationship is with the CEO. To be blunt, you’re likely to be very different personalities so it often needs work.

Right, we’ve done a disaster check, water cooler catch-up, stand-up meeting and CEO update. Next, I like to check in with customer support.

What does a CTO do in customer relations?

Customer-facing tasks have dramatically changed for the CTO over recent years.

In them olden days, it was rare for the tech leader and/or the team to get their hands dirty with those pesky customers. Now it’s increasingly common that the team gets direct market feedback on the problems they are tackling and the kit they are building.

I was once at a company where we analysed the support calls and it turned out that 40 per cent were password resets. The user password reset was not working but the admin side was. No ticket had been reported. We fixed it quickly and suddenly support had nothing to do!

Moving on to the sales department…

Next, and with something of a heavy heart, it’s across to sales to find out what mythical version of the software they have promised to customers today.

It always amazes me that their one-dimensional brains come up with such imaginative ideas for products, particularly when you realise they are still trying to remember their passwords. (For any sales director stumbling across this article, the password is normally your eldest child’s name and their year of birth.)

And then quickly to a board meeting.

After messing with the sales team’s heads, it’s on to a board meeting. If the investor director is attending, then we can look forward to decent coffee and Chocolate Hobnobs. Red carpet stuff.

All members have read my report, digested and understood it, come up with some thoughtful questions and congratulated me for my hard work.

Either that, or more likely I’m confronted by a gaggle of non-technologists, gurning their way through my notes and struggling to understand how our products actually work.

For a bit of fun, I might highlight that the sales numbers fail to add up and the marketing metrics provide no actionable insight whatsoever, but that’s only if I’m feeling bored. In truth, effective teams will often be competitive with each other, but in a collaborative spirit that drives a sum that is greater than the parts.

After the board, I rush to the conference room downstairs to meet a prospect who has concerns about our technology, security and processes. There are the usual questions which are relatively easy to answer but I must remember to raise ISO 27001 at the next board meeting now that we are at a reasonable size to make this sort of meeting or the long forms(!) redundant.

Pop into marketing and, TBH, it’s sometimes like the Mary Celeste in there

A sign on the door used to say “creative away day”, when we all worked together!

Tongue in cheek here — there’s always a bit of friendly tension with the marketing business unit.

They’re probably off on some team bonding yoga session or being massaged by goldfish. All of which will soon result in the release of version 2.61 (from 2.60) being promoted as a fundamental paradigm shift as we become the Uber of X. You see, I work with but sometimes struggle to understand the marketing team. Technology development is so much more tangible.

Lunch is generally a sandwich, whilst catching up with Slack and email messages.

And then, finally…

Some proper CTO work!

Analysis of our competitors by the product manager and a list of new functionality that we could do with. Priorities are based on user needs and our ability to implement them on time.

Lots of robust conversations about whether we absolutely need to have the functionality or not. I’m always cautious to avoid us turning our beautiful product into a user mess. Very common over time. MoSCoW strategy is a good starting place.

DevOps contact us in the meeting to state that a data supplier API has fallen over so we automatically switch to a cached version whilst it is down. Time to call the supplier and get an explanation, emphasising that it cannot happen again.

Two interviews with senior Java Developers, both of high calibre who have passed the relevant technical tests and team interviews (crucial to stress-test fit). All part of a strict employment process which means we have a higher retention rate. Everyone has gone through the process, so the team knows that a new starter is up to scratch.

Interviews with me are generally to rubber stamp as well as look at their potential in the business, beyond the posts they have applied for.

Before I leave for the day, I check that all went well with today’s schedule release.

Hopefully no issues and there shouldn’t be, as we put in a lot of effort on deployment and DevOps at the start of the product’s life.

Production releases happen on Wednesday, so we have time to roll back during the release if anything crops up. Never release on Friday. For the same reason, never have a major hospital operation on a Friday afternoon.

A day goes smoothly when the processes are working and the CEO is happy.

Home time is catching up on various articles I sent to my Kindle.

Now, I can only hope that I’ve managed to boost your understanding of (almost) everything you need to know about being a CTO and what a CTO does in a company. It also illustrates the strange contradiction of senior tech management — that your day can often be full of people and meetings and yet key decisions are often yours alone. It can be lonely at the top. Important therefore to recruit a strong team, expand your support network and create sufficient me-time for learning and reflection.

BTW: I love sales & marketing really. They play a crucial role in getting our salaries paid!

(TIP: to find out what is the average salary of CTOs worldwide, check our salary aggregator data for different cities.)

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