5 Non-Technical Qualities of Strong Startup CTOs (With real examples)

Myth: The best developer in the company should be the Chief Technology Officer (CTO). If that's your only job description when hiring a CTO for your tech startup, then you really need to read the rest of this article before hiring a CTO for your company...

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What is a Startup CTO?


A startup Chief Technology Officer is, generally, without definition. At an early stage of a company, the CTO’s role is the glue which holds together a technical product. As the organisation develops, the CTO’s role focuses to scaling and growing a team, product, and architecture.


At the most pure to their role, the CTO will be responsible for the technical design and delivery of the platform that supports your fledging business. This encapsulates platform design, technology selection, development, QA, DevOps, and a whole heap of end user testing.


On the intangible side, a CTO becomes an evangelist for your product and company. A strong CTO with a trusted public brand can help recruit the best of developers, and will be a strong tangible asset standing next to you in a sales or fundraising meeting.


What does a Tech Startup CTO do?


The role of a Chief Technology Officer, as its title suggests, includes working in the tech team and overseeing all technical aspects of the tech startup, software development, quality assurance, project management, and managing the technical and development team. In early stage tech startups, the CTO must be prepared to manage everything - from WiFi installation in the office, to leading the development team at the forefront of building innovative technologies.

"Startups don't have the luxury to spend too much time thinking of what's the best way of implementing certain features. Sometimes it is better to make a decision that might be slightly less than optimized, than spending way too much time trying to come out with a solid foolproof approach (which probably isn't that foolproof anyway!)"

- Adrian Goh | CTO and Co-founder, NodeFlair

Adrian Goh

Besides the technical aspects of the CTO in a startup, the role of a CTO in a startup also involves working alongside its founders, being heavily involved in business strategy, accountable for business goals, involved in company wide decisions, team management, organisation vision, and being part of the management team and hiring process. However, all those are pretty vague tasks, skills, and responsibilities of a great CTO in an organisation.


Let's dive into each skill set needed of a good Chief Technology Officer in tech startups, and what's needed in the role of a CTO besides just the technical responsibilities and management:


5 Non-Technical Qualities of Strong CTOs for Tech Startups


1) Act Like A Co-Founder


A CTO isn't just there to deal with the engineering responsibilities. CTOs in startups is a key role especially in tech companies, and a CTO should work alongside its founders to be on the same side. The CTO should make sure it isn't a Founders vs Engineering Team culture, and be the person responsible for ensuring the Engineering Team contributes to the overall company strategy and vision.


Every team member in a startup should think and act like a founder. Especially a CTO, who is more exposed to external stakeholders and at the forefront of working with the founders in planning and executing strategy and vision. The CTO should see themselves as part of the founding team in startups, and the founders should also treat the CTO in that way.


A specific, real example: Showing up in front of stakeholders.

The startup founders invited their management team to dinner at a fancy restaurant, to thank them for their hard work on a project. While eating, they bumped into one of their investors. When being introduced to the investor, the CTO of the company (who's a genius in AI, algorithms technology and DevOps) happily said "So I see that we're burning your money for this expensive dinner. Thanks!!" That investor's facial expression turned immediately, and the founders had to scramble to do crisis recovery.


Besides knowledge in technologies and engineering, a CTO should be a leader who can represent the company accordingly. Both internally and in front of external stakeholders.


2) Think 'Business' First


No matter how cool the technology is, ultimately it's part of a business. A good tech startup CTO should understand that their responsibilities are directly linked to business goals. CTOs should know how to manage the technology aspects of the startup as part of the business as a whole.


This involves factors like planning the technology strategy in accordance to business and market needs (not just whatever is the most current technology/what the CTO likes to dabble into), being accountable for business metrics and goals, and understanding how the technical team can support the company's current needs while being aligned with the business vision.


A specific, real example: CTO of tech career portal NodeFlair launched an MVP within a week as the only developer.

The team wanted to test if building a job aggregator dedicated to developers is something that will stick with users - and the CTO got to work right away by himself.


"The MVP literally only had a search bar and a set of limited filters, and the first version wasn't even mobile-friendly! But it allowed us to quickly validate our hypothesis as we speak to users, and quickly build and improve on it from user feedback. We started writing tests and fine-tuning the code and product only after our hypothesis was validated." - Adrian Goh, CTO and Co-founder


A CTO must always advocate for the highest technology standards for the startup. However, he/she should also understand that they are part of a business organisation, with other non-technical factors to consider as part of their responsibilities of a tech startup CTO.



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3) Collaborate Internally, Not Compete


Startup Chief Technology Officers are always looking to innovate, and they want their team to be at the forefront of technology trends (Blockchain, ICO, anyone?). However, CTOs often feel constrained by 'external' technology requests from other teams, the lack of budget to hire more engineers, lack of engineers with the right skills. This makes them feel stuck as they cannot work on their innovative ideas.

On the flipside, the marketing team would wonder why does it take so long for the engineers to ship a feature that would 10x their conversion metrics, and the sales team wonder why the site loads so slowly when they're doing demos to clients. And honestly, nobody outside of the software development team really understands exactly what the developers are doing.


A good startup CTO needs to be the bridge between the developers and the rest of the team members. This is done by always understanding that they are on the same page with the same goals, and the only way to succeed individually is to collaborate and succeed together.


Tip: Whenever you find yourself in an unproductive debate with a person from the same company, pause and remind each other out loud that you're on the same page. Then reiterate what this 'same page' looks like (eg. Decreasing churn rate), and restart the discussion process from there. This works regardless of whether you're a tech startup CTO or not.


4) Good Manager and Leader


By now we should be aligned that it's not good enough for a CTO to just be good at software development and knowledge of technologies. Ultimately, the CTO is a leadership position.


Leadership traits should not be an afterthought when recruiting CTOs for companies. In fact, the ability to lead and manage a team should be the top skills you look for when you hire a CTO. A startup CTO needs to be able to gain the respect of the developers, and ensure team members are motivated and doing their best at work. The position of CTOs is not only related to managing technologies and architecture, but to ensure that the tech team members have the resources to do their best job everyday.


Tech startup CTOs must have good team management skills, and not be a person who prefers to be an individual contributor - no matter how talented a developer that person is.


A specific, real example: A new CTO suggests to the founders that her main responsibilities are to work on new algorithms and lead product management. She then delegates all the technical debt and backlog to the software developers, not listening to their ideas, and they all work in silos. Unsurprisingly, the developers resigned one after another.


A key reason why a person joins startup companies is for growth - especially learning from more experienced folks and being involved in innovative projects. Even if that person does not have the right skillset now, a startup CTO's responsibilities include helping them develop those skills and make them feel part of the team and project process. Part of good management skills is not treating the role of junior employees like minions and making them only do the dirty tasks.

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5) Develop and Retain Talent


Hiring is hard, but retaining the talent you hire poses even more challenges. A good startup CTO must be responsible not only for the process of hiring and managing engineering talent. A startup CTO must also play the role of developing and retaining them.

Ultimately, people want similar things no matter their position. Besides money, which motivates talent to a certain extent, a person wants to be recognised at work, have growth and development - no matter how they define it. Tech CTOs need to be aware of how each individual member in the software development department is motivated (Surprise: Not everyone in the company wants to be promoted!), and manage their growth and development accordingly.


A team cannot succeed if only the leader is exceptional. The role of tech CTOs is to develop every member in engineering, so that they help scale technologies and pull their own weight even better in the company. These talent will then bring about fresh ideas, help the CTO with challenges instead of creating new ones, and have stronger skills to contribute more to a tech project and its development.


Conclusion


A tech startup CTO is like any other key managing position within an organisation. Besides role-related knowledge, in this case having skills in software, tech architecture and security, a CTO's non-technical qualities are as significant for good performance. A shoutout to Adrian, CTO and Co-founder of Nodeflair, for sharing his hard-earned experience to help more engineering managers lead better teams!


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