Does your startup need a CTO?

The most successful businesses have one thing in common: excellent leadership.

For tech startups, in particular, a technology visionary who is also a great manager is essential for a growing company. Learn the role of a CTO at different stages of a startup and the qualities that a great Chief Technology Officer (CTO) should have to be successful in your startup.

So many early stage non-technical founders who are looking for a co-founder or CTO come up to me and say “I need a CTO”.  
But what they are really saying is “I need a developer who will work for equity that will code the first version of the product”.   That’s because

In the early days, the CTO’s main responsibilities will be to build…only write code…there is very little “management” since there is most likely no other developers.

As the startup matures, the CTO’s responsibilities will shift away from coding to almost all managing technical teams.

So depending on the stage of your startup, you should be looking for different skillsets.  

Just be mindful that in the early days titles are often used as a marketing tool and if your early CTO …aahhem, coder… can’t evolve into a manger or is not interested in that role, then get ready to have very difficult conversations because you might have to replace them or bring someone in above them to whom they will report to.
So, once you’re past the stage where you just need a “developer”,  below are 6 qualities that you should be looking for in the CTO…and I would actually recommend that you look for these qualities even in the early stages of your startup because if your “developer” possesses the qualities of the CTO, they will be able to easily make the transition into the management role when the time came…saving you the headache of replacing them.

Six qualities that you should be looking for in the CTO

Quality #1: Technical Expertise on a lot of different technologies and understand what new technologies and trends are on the horizon

Unlike a developer, who is generally familiar with a small subset of technologies that are within their “expertise” umbrella, a CTO needs to be an expert in a lot of different technologies…not a deep expert but at least understand the pros and cons of each.  

Their job is to be aware of what’s currently available and what technologies are coming up that you can take advantage of…. always staying ahead of emerging trends.  And because technology changes at the speed of light, constant learning should be in the CTOs DNA.

Quality #2: Great Network

While everybody should have a great network, this is especially true for your CTO. As your company grows, you will need new employees.  A CTO with a great network of skilled developers, who are generally very hard to find and are almost never “looking” for work but maybe open to opportunities, will give your company a big advantage.  

Quality #3: Product Experience

It’s important that your CTO is not just a tech junkie, but knows what generally makes or breaks a great product. This knowledge should come from actual experience and ideally from working at other startups.

Every decision they make should always be with the customer in mind.  Too many CTOs make the mistake of assuming they always know what’s best for the customer instead of asking the customer.

Quality #4: Communication Skills…both Technical and Non-Technical

Your CTO will be the one translating business goals to technical goals to your software developers. This means that your CTO must not only have technical expertise and business acumen… but they also need to be excellent at communicating with technical and non-technical people.

They have to be self-aware and avoid assuming that the audience knows what they are talking about.  They have to be able to communicate complex technical concepts in simple terms and never talk down to someone who is less technical.

Good communication goes hand in hand with listening.  By listening to their team, the leadership team, and the market, the CTOs job is to balance the needs of technology, business, product, etc.

Quality #5: Deadline Management

A great CTO should be able to know how much their team can deliver in how much time and should be able to inspire their team to successfully meet these deadlines.
They should also be able to implement processes in your startup to increase product development efficiency and improve transparency and team communication and strive to constantly improve the processes that they’ve implemented...because every improvement in your process and team communications will have a great impact on your company's efficiency, your speed, and the bottom line.

Quality #6: People Skills

Your CTO should be great at technology, but also at managing a team. They should inspire their team to keep focusing and working towards the same goals.
It’s their responsibility to facilitate an environment where employees reach their maximum potential and to make sure the team is more than the sum of all employees.  The developer culture that they create and maintain, will attract and retain other great developers.
A CTO who shares a love for learning, empathy and a desire to see their team members grow professionally will be very successful at their job.

Most Importantly: Cultural Fit

This is not a quality, but a must have for the CTO to be successful in your startup… The CTO should have a Cultural fit with your company values.
Because you could have the most perfect CTO on paper with all of the skills and experience, but if they don’t match your company values, they will very rarely be successful at their job.  
That’s why I’m such a big proponent for hiring for DNA….matching your company DNA to the candidate’s DNA.
It’s not uncommon for it to take more than six months to find a CTO that matches all of these qualities, so make sure to take your time and don’t rush into a decision.
Don’t say YES to someone simply because they are willing to work for equity or a discounted rate!  Make sure that you vet them and spend time with them to ensure that they fit your company culture and that they will be there for the long haul.
The next question is….how do you find a CTO or a potential technical co-founder? 

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