What does a Startup CTO do anyway?

Owen Evans
May 4, 2023

It’s a question answered by CTO Academy leadership coach Owen Evans – though please note before reading, this article is written from the perspective of a software product company, it’s also applicable to hardware but could be wrong for other types of CTO roles.

What a CTO does is often ill defined and sometimes misunderstood, we can be lots of different things to lots of different people.

Add early stage into that mix and you have a nebulous, ever changing role at a nebulous, ever changing organisation. It’s enough to get to the most seasoned of us as the questions mount up.

What am I supposed to achieve?

What am I supposed to do?

What should my goals be?

Unfortunately most answers to these questions are “it depends” but let’s look at some key pillars to being a great startup CTO.

The typical CTO growth curve looks like this:

Startup CTO Backgrounds

Startup CTOs are highly unlikely to be career CTO’s, few of them have done an MBA and come from another corporate environment.

They usually fall into one of the following categories;

  • Founder: they were the founder of the group who knew some code and built the first version of the product, they’ve started hiring the team and they generally come from a background of individual contributor jobs where they’ve been cutting code
  • Early stage hire: much like the above, but often someone who was in a management or leadership role at another organisation, as the team was getting started there was an identified need for someone to manage a team of engineers and
  • Seasoned CTO/Exec: Much more unusual and if you’re in this category, apologies but this article isn’t really aimed at you ….

By far the most normal route into the Startup CTO role is from an engineering (software/hardware) and is usually the person who developed most of version 1 of the product.

It’s what you make it

Startups are companies that change all the time, the rapid rate of experimentation, delivery and change are what make them such an amazingly exciting, rewarding and downright frustrating place to work.

Just when you think you’ve got a handle on your work everything shifts or grows or changes and you have to battle to learn to swim again in what has suddenly become your new normal.

Leadership roles at startups are therefore more nebulous than in other companies with the truth being that often these roles are a hybrid between contributor and manager. You’re resource poor (usually) and time poor (definitely) so the most strategic thing is often to write the prototype for feature x or maintain the project for y, but this is by a large distance the least important part of your role now.

First and foremost you’re a leader of part of the organisation and as such your core goal is to lead people to row in the right direction.

Vision and Direction

One of the hardest things around startups is the uncertainty of everything or in the words of Eric Reis from The Lean Start Up … “A startup is a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty”

You’re confident you have a good idea/product/vision but you can’t be certain, you’re still finding your product-market-fit and working hard to prove out the viability of the company. This fills teams with a baseline level of angst.

Your role as a Startup CTO is to translate the vision and mission of the company to the technical members of your organisation. You need to make sure the strategy of what they’re working on is clear.

They need to know the why for what they’re working on. It’s a crucial element of keeping people motivated to stay the course, identify pitfalls of the current approach, find novel and pragmatic solutions to customer and technical problems and to be committed to building a culture that works for you and your company.

This is one of the hardest things for heads down types (as a lot of engineers are) to get a handle on.

It requires constant communication, constant rallying and a strong connection to the business outcome and vision.

You need to get a handle on the company as a whole, you can’t ignore customers/sales/finances/operations as they’re all reflections that allow you to convey a strong mission to your team.

If you haven’t read it already the go to book on this is called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

Hiring and talent

You have to build scalable talent pipelines, you have to think about the longer game and beyond when you can just attract the friends of friends.

Hiring people who you can learn from will make you better at your job and founders who struggle with this concept, face bigger challenges than those who embrace it.

It’s part of the startup CTO to be a hiring brand ambassador and set the hiring guard rails for your company to grow and thrive.

Good hiring brands take years to build and so you want to start early on talking about what you’re creating, the culture and environment you want and speak to people outside of your own company a lot.

Making decisions

If you’ve succeeded on the hiring pipeline you’re probably filling the org with very good people, who are capable of solving problems and thinking up creative solutions.

The other thing that tends to grow is the number of decisions where there are more than one viable option, where none of the options is obviously worse than the other.

Some of the strongest value of the CTO role is to be able to take accountability for a decision and just make it.

You’re unlikely to regret the decision more than you regret the time wasted thinking on the decision. You can also free your team from the angst of having to make a call with incomplete information, or just with no clear best option.

Accountability and Autonomy

Despite the power of being a decision maker you should use it wisely.

One of your core roles is to make sure you’re building a scalable organisation, and growing talent within the organisation to take accountability but also have autonomy to make their own decisions. You don’t want every decision to have to be made at the top level, you want to empower the great people you hired to get the most out of their role.

That means you need to set clear boundaries of where their remit starts and ends, you need to set clear guidance of what good looks like, you need to be clear on objectives (which comes back to the vision and mission so it’s all reinforcing)

Delivery and measurement

A product startup that’s not shipping features isn’t really learning from their market/customer and as such is probably not progressing as well as it should.

Everything is about learning and proof so a core part of everyone’s role at a startup is to help deliver, experiments and full features need to ship fast, you need to make pragmatic calls to make sure you’re not over baking the technology solutions before you’ve really learned how customers will actually use them.

You also need to be thinking about measuring everything that gets shipped to be able to answer those questions. In this way a startups CTO is heavily product focused too.

Strategic Planning

Strategic planning is lastly on the list for a reason, it’s not the thing you’ll spend a lot of your day doing (well actually it’ll be infused into everything) but your role is to align technology strategy to the goals of the business.

In this way your strategic planning is more around “what are we not going to solve yet” and being clear on the risks you’ve opted to take on as the technology leader.

“Oh we won’t need to scale that for a few years, so lets just build it into the monolith, it’ll be fine for now” vs “Oh that will open up a massive security vulnerability tomorrow so we should fix it now”

These key things are all part of the CTO remit, it’ll be up to you how much focus you put on any of them over others.

A few things that aren’t listed here are:

  • Know all the technology: you have a team use them
  • Spend all your day writing code: you’re not an individual contributor anymore

But I’m not doing anything!

The biggest struggles I’ve seen Startup CTOs cope with is the move from the technical to the managerial. For them to acknowledge and adjust to the fact their job is no longer about writing code, pushing release, shipping code to production.

You’re not getting the endorphin hit of a pull request to guide you that you’re doing valuable work.

Your feedback loops are elongated to weeks or months rather than hours as your work takes a longer term and more strategic view.

It can be tough to deal with, it can make you question your value to the organisation.

But believe me because I know from personal experience and from those I coach, if you nail most of the issues above then you’re helping to build a strong performing organisation and at the same time, learning at such a rate that you’re becoming a highly effective and highly valuable CTO.

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