so much subjectivity in the field that receiving a valid, 100% legit answer, is
close to impossible anyway. Even if you hire your brother-in-law as a
co-founding CTO, it’s still a subjective perception of the technical landscape.
Trust is what you need in this
equation. And you better have at least a few reputable veteran technical
folks in your circle. Sourcing advice through several mediums would be
better than relying on a single opinion.
receive a good chunk of emails and messages from people in my network asking
for general technical advice (infrastructure, architecture, picking the right
platform or a vendor, etc.) And many of them openly disclose they have spoken
with 5–10 people and brainstormed over the different answers they get.
for a hundred different opinions may get confusing, though. I wouldn’t
advice you to ask an open-ended question on Quora, Stack Overflow, social
media, email blasts, personal network, friends, and recommendations. Prepare
that into multiple phases – half a dozen generic, high-end answers, sift
through them and narrow down your options, iterate with another group, expand
upon or niche down even further.
scenario, you source advice from people who would potentially work in your team
if you scale enough. This means that they would be willing to participate in a
venture started in a certain way, what they advocate for.
Are You “Guesstimating” Your Tech Solutions?
The reason it’s so confusing is the
variety of alternatives in the field and the lack of proper industry statistics
or benchmarks. Almost every problem in tech can be solved in a dozen ways or
more. Some more efficient than others, but most will work anyway.
The question is usually far more
sophisticated as you need to project your business into multiple dimensions.
What may work most effectively within the first 6 months may not scale past the
6th year, and the enterprise-grade solution will be overkill early on.
It also revolves around other aspects of
the job — the type of community you want to engage with, available workforce in
your area, future integrations with other tools or services. The evolution of
the business will start hitting different limits, but unless your business plan
can reliably predict 10 years ahead, you’re guesstimating anyway.
How To Get Technical Insights
My advice would be looking for several
trusted technical architects/team leads in your network with a decade of
experience or more. Use other sources if you can, Quora being one option and
technical consultants too. Ask for referrals and recommendations. Attend
technical events and meet people there.
Tech people may be fairly open to
sharing their 2 cents if approached the right way. Just don’t get overwhelmed
with a hundred different options as you may give up too soon.
FAQs On CTOs And Technical Leadership
Let’s debunk some myths as we review
each part of the following questions separately.
1. Why Does a Company Need a CTO?
It probably doesn’t. But probably not
for the reasons you’re thinking.
Roles, as such, are a formality. The CEO
of the company may label themselves as the “Bearer of Good News”. The
head tech person may be the “Cable-wrangling Soldier”.
Those roles could be misleading as well.
A contract could be worded in a way that gives the full power to the CTO. Or an
external owner of the company that’s not listed in the public records.
A contract is not necessary even in some
instances where a couple co-founders simply decide on the chain of command
which may not be obvious from their titles.
Businesses use the designated titles for
brevity, when looking for investors, when talking to the press or in
order to give a rough idea of hierarchy to the public (including when
onboarding new employees).
2. Who Needs a CTO?
There’s usually a very good reason you
are hiring a chief software architect.
The organization is large enough to need
one for a massively complex platform. That assumes that a CTO is around, a
bunch of tech leads/consultants, other software rockstars are employed.
Otherwise, it’s still a leading role
but normally appointed through the CTO or a technical CEO.
Assessing tech skills isn’t easy for a
senior role. It’s either an “emotional” decision or a purely data-driven one.
Emotional is a product of a veteran
developer working on the team or hiring an old acquaintance that’s trustworthy
(reliable, well-behaved, hard-working). Tech skills are obviously an important
aspect but, more importantly, making sure that the lead will stick around for
at least 5 years, without causing major cultural shock, is very important.
The data-driven decision combines
experience, CV, portfolio, source code, references from tech leaders, industry
talks, courses led or PhDs in the field, things like that. Some are more
academic, others – more practical (experience in other large corporations or
startups with a successful exit).
You rarely hire a chief architect out of
nowhere. You either don’t need them or the CTO or some other devs are capable
and trustworthy enough to assess the competency if that’s the path you want to
3. Who Can Work As A CTO?
Why hire a CTO if the VP of Engineering
manages day-to-day operations?
There is no “legal” reason to do so. For
instance, the VP of Engineering can act as a CTO.
As stated above, the reason for using
designated titles is establishing a certain role in the company hierarchy.
Your head developer could act as a CTO.
Often, the CTO is not the most “technical” personal on the team (the best
developer and all). It’s much more about:
- Strategic vision.
- Understanding the broad
spectrum of technical requirements.
- Defining the appropriate
- Ensuring that the hiring
process is planned and executed properly (often through the VP of Eng when
Which is also why a VP of Engineering
may be more suitable for day-to-day operations than a CTO.
Technical founders appointed as CTOs
often bring a VP of Engineering in as soon as the overwhelming flow of
questions and generic problems are too much to bear. Again, CTOs have a
strategic role – research, architecture, platform design, picking the right
technical layer for a new solution, etc. They don’t necessarily come with the “soft
skills” package either.
The VP of Engineering is the technical
manager on steroids. Understanding tech very well, but the focus is primarily
on communication, building the right technical department (including hiring),
ensuring that teams are structured effectively and operating efficiently.
4. Can Technical CEOs Cover The CTO’s Role?
It can be very hard – and hardly
If a technical founder is completely
focused on the technical end, they usually bring a CEO in.
The role of a CEO entails the overseeing
of each and every high-end aspect of the company, building the vision of the
organization, creating strategic partnerships, engaging in media activities
(interviews, PR) and much more.
It’s a leadership role. And it’s not
limited to the tech department as a growing organization branches into a
creative team, marketing department, sales force, finances, operations, hiring,
Working closely with the tech team (on
behalf of a CTO) would drastically limit the attention to every other team in
The Limitations Of Technical Founders
As a technical founder myself, I had
expertise in leading 10–15 people teams and teaching technical classes for up
to 150 people in previous companies.
I couldn’t handle more than
6–7 tech people under me as a founder.
- I had regular meetings with
- There was the marketing
strategy whereas a CMO was (and still is) not available.
- I had to handle payroll and
- There were interviews for
all sorts of roles and I was heavily involved.
- Budget planning and
investment decisions (staff vs. automation vs. increased ad spent).
The list is longer than I care to admit
and I had dozens and dozens of varying activities to take care of on a weekly
The larger the team, the more
impractical it is for a CEO to cover for a CTO. Either everything will go south
(all of the other departments), or you’ll try juggling between 5–7 teams
weekly, paying limited attention to each.
This may lead to a decreased employee
satisfaction (and layoffs), delayed milestones, chaos in the tech department.
A CTO is a CTO for a reason. A CEO
should not step in as a CTO unless the startup has just been bootstrapped (<
5 people). VP of Engineering is a managerial role handling day-to-day
operations while CTOs are in charge of research, architecture, design, and the
technological vision of the company as a whole.
How Is a CTO Different from Project Managers and Lead Developers?
A project manager may deal with your
offshore team and your client – or your management team if your products are
internal. This may be handy in terms of keeping everything on track or
reporting delays and possible problems early on.
Your project manager can also identify
problems or help out with testing the separate iterations of the product,
assist with documentation and so on. If you implement an agile model and there
are regular scope changes, someone should be in charge with communicating these
to developers and updating the time frames accordingly.
The drawback would be the lack of programming
know-how. Some delays may be caused by technical problems or architecture that
hasn’t been planned for your use case. Assessing delays would also be a problem
as there would be no measurable way to identify the covered test/use cases, how
long would it realistically take to finish the rest and is the platform stable
enough to get the project done without having to refactor most of it.
A lead developer would be technically
experienced (ideally in the same programming stack) and could work closely with
the other developers on requirements, estimates, and the proper implementation
This may work out well from a technical
standpoint – ensuring stability and reliability of the products and a local
trusted member who can manage the code quality. Estimates should be more
The problem is that more agile projects
(or rapidly evolving ones) would still require a lot of back-and-forth with
non-technical team members (your management team or your client). Developers
with no PM expertise can often postpone projects or implement features in a way
that is not necessarily the best option for the specific business case (for
instance, introducing additional layers for stability, performance or something
else for an MVP that wouldn’t need that over the next 3 years).
As some senior developers may disagree,
I’d say that a technical project manager or a lead developer with outstanding
soft skills and business experience would certainly be “the best of both
words”. Definitely more expensive and harder to find, but both “edge”
alternatives have some limitations that may eat up extra time each and every
Hiring CTOs Internally vs Externally
That depends on the size of the company,
its long-term goals, and the different stakeholders involved in the process.
A fast-growing funded startup has
different goals when compared to a small shop bootstrapped by a technical guy
in charge of the business activities now.
Unless you’re a large organization that
grew incredibly fast, looking for talent internally may be a good option.
Identify leadership roles within your technical team who have already received
a promotion or two (team leaders, senior technical managers).
Those people have already showed
commitment and potential. They are aware of the business processes, the
technical environment, and the dev team. A promotion would be somewhat seamless
for someone deeply involved in the technical process over the past years.
Rapidly growing companies may require
someone who can take the business to the next level. There are different
steps in building and growing a business. Not everyone is prepared for (or
capable of) making the jump and setting the foundations for the next iteration.
In that case, you are probably looking
for a former CTO, a VP of engineering, or a technical manager who is aligned
with your process, vision, and goals.
CTOs have different roles in different
organizations – some are extremely technical, involved with R&D and actual
hands-on while others primarily manage the process and evaluate software
alternatives and high-end approaches.
A CTO is a “partner in crime” in the
business. This could be a long conversation with someone you’ve known for a
while. It requires serious commitment and understanding of the business goals,
determination to grow with you and nurture the technical team (and the product
development) over time. It shouldn’t be underestimated in any case.
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