What does a CTO actually do?

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 is no typical role for a Chief Technology Officer.

So we’ve focused this article around some of the daily issues that can typically emerge in this key leadership role, particularly for a CTO working dealing with the business goals and technological needs of an early stage 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 peek with relevant information about like at the CTO coalface. 

1st thing on my daily to do list check no disasters have happened overnight and in order of priority;

No security breaches.

No systems gone down.

No one in team has quit [early stage companies always at risk of this one!] 

No angry emails from customer(s) [ditto] 

No angry email from the Chief Executive

Breakfast don’t forget to eat.

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

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

Then it’s back into the mix.

Attend a stand up meeting where the approach will depend on the size of your team and lots of discussion about what is the optimum size of a team If the team is small then I’m scrum master and leading the meeting.

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 keep my mouth shut unless I need to correct any major issues or misconception about wider strategy.

Onto the CEO and 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 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.

This relationship is crucial to get right but is almost always time poor.

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

So, we’ve already done Disaster check Water cooler catch up Standup meeting CEO update Next, I like to check-in with customer support Customer facing tasks is something that has dramatically changed for the CTO over recent years.

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

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

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

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

After messing up with the sales teams heads, it can be an event like a board meeting If the investor director is attending then it’s normally decent coffee and chocolate hob-nobs. 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.

Then I can be rushed to a meet a prospect in the meeting room downstairs, who has concerns about our technology, security and processes. Usual questions and relatively easy to answer but 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 

Sign on the door used to say “creative away day” …. when we all worked together!

Tongue in cheek here … 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.

Finally some proper 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 in a timely manner.

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 to happen over time. MoSCoW strategy 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 was down. Time to call supplier and get an explanation, emphasise that it cannot happen again.

Two interviews with senior Java Developers both high calibre and 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 and everyone has going 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 what they have applied for.

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

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

Production releases happen on Wednesday, just in case anything crops up that we have time to roll back during the release. 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.

It’s a fictional but not untypical day, hopefully aids with your understanding of (almost) everything you need to know about being a CTO 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, so 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!

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