Developers · CTO

How to hire a CTO if I am not a programmer?

Mohsin Khan

July 11th, 2014

I am a founder of an early stage e-commerce start up and am trying to find a lead programmer who will hopefully become CTO. I've taken a couple Java classes in college and am currently 45% through codeacademy's lesson on Python, so I have some understanding of programming.

We have a MVP built on wordpress(contracted out), but we have to hire a CTO or atleast have one lined up before we proceed to get funding. 

I have met with some people and had great conversations about the company and figured out a lot about them personality-wise, but I don't exactly know how I can test them in their coding ability. Any helpful tips on how to accurately assess a developers skill if you don't know how to program well?

Also, What should I look for in a lead programmer that will tip me off to if they will be a good CTO?

Taylor Dondich Vice President of Engineering at MaxCDN

July 11th, 2014

If you are looking to hire a developer who will become, eventually, your CTO and not just a programmer, then you are looking to hire a potential executive member who will represent your company.  As such, it's important to look for someone who has the technical chops as well as the ability to be communicative with the outside world.  What does this mean:

1) Do they have a github account ( If so, do they contribute to any public repositories? Do they file bugs? What does their communication on these repositories look like? Is it clear? Do they delegate tasks to other contributors in the repositories? If so, are they respectful and clear in their direction?

2) Any public interviews? Have they done any PR for the work they've done with other companies or for themselves?  Are they able to convey technical concepts in easy to understand ways?

3) What's their social media profile look like?  Yes, this matters for a CTO role.  Do they have a twitter account? Are they considered an influencer in the tech circles they are involved in?  Do they attend any meetups?  Have they SPOKEN at any meetups?

4) What does their linkedin profile look like? Do they hop from one company to another? Are hey loyal? What does their testimonials say? Skip the testimonials that are vague and don't give you an idea of what the person did and what kind of impact they had. Look for testimonials such as: "A did B which gave us C and that made us D"

It's imperative that if you hire a lead programmer / CTO, you hire a leader and a representative.  Otherwise, you're just hiring a code monkey with a title which will make it ever so harder to hire that leader once you find them.

Hope that helps!

David Crooke Serial entrepreneur and CTO

July 11th, 2014

I think you may be approaching this the wrong way .... CTO is to programmer / coder (I cringe) as CFO is to bookkeeper. Is it a coder you need, or a CTO? If you want someone who will be a CTO, look for the skill set for that role, or the potential to grow into it. This person doesn't necessarily need to code, as you observed that can be outsourced to India if it's not a complex product. Here are some of the things I (in the role of CTO) regard as my bailiwick, whch are not code related:

- Setting technical direction for the company - how will products a year or more out be constructed, with what technologies?
- Identifying 3rd party tech vendors and doing the BD for that
- Legal stuff related to tech - SLA's, compliance
- Information security
- Technology related PR and creating an image for the business as a technical thought leader
- Being the ultimate sales engineer, and maintaining relationships with major tech-savvy customers

At an early stage company, I also expect to be the lead developer and to sling code with the best of them, just like a race car engineer can drive a van to go get supplies, but it is not the key function of a CTO.

Finally, be wary of hiring a "coder" .... hire a software engineer instead. You'll be glad you did later.

Roger Smith

July 11th, 2014

I would suggest finding someone you do know and trust who may be able to speak with these folks and provide you an assessment.

Jake Carlson Software Development Manager at Oracle

July 11th, 2014

I absolutely agree that CTO and programmer are not the same positions mid-to-late stage, but they are not and absolutely should not be mutually exclusive at the early stage. Frankly, hiring a CTO at an early stage startup that can't get his/her hands dirty with the coding and doesn't have a fair amount of actual relevant development experience is the wrong move, even if he/she is primarily managing an outsourced team.

That is not because CTO and 'programmer' are the same role, it is because everyone in a startup at the early stage takes on multiple roles. Just like having a CEO in a very small company that acts like a CEO of a huge company is a mistake, so to is having a CTO in a small company that has a hands-off approach to the technical implementation.

In other words you are talking about both a lead developer and a CTO, not one or the other. Yes they will eventually be different roles, but not now. So you need someone that is both, and therefore you need someone that is qualified to be both or at least can grow into the CTO role.

Jake Carlson Software Development Manager at Oracle

July 11th, 2014

I would get someone involved with the interview process that really knows their stuff. I'm all for self-improvement and it's great that you're learning programming, but there is no substitute for experience. An experienced CTO / lead developer should be able to ask questions pertaining to common problems and be able to weed out the applicants that are faking it vs the ones that really know what they are talking about. Demonstrated previous work is a must here. Programmers build things. Look at the things the applicant built, and have someone with lots of experience look at some code samples.

James Bond CTO at SupplyBetter

July 11th, 2014

I think you're starting the right way, by talking with them yourself to see if the interpersonal dynamics are good (you're going to be spending a lot of time with this person!), and if they believe in the opportunity (you want someone at this stage who's as passionate about the idea as you are). Have them discuss their work process with you, and explain a technical problem they've solved. You don't need to understand every detail; but it's absolutely critical that they can communicate with you about technical issues in a way that enables you to make trade-offs, and not just snow you with technical gobbledygook. Talk about how they'll prioritize the development tasks, and how they'll determine how features will work -- are they going to proactively involve you, or are they going to just charge off on their own (remember, *you* are their "customer"). Lastly, make sure they're prepared to do what needs to be done -- some people who call themselves CTO's just want to manage a team and don't want to get their hands dirty coding; but most likely that's what you need at this stage (but also, ask them how they would go about hiring and managing a team).

If it feels like a good fit with all the above, then get someone you trust to vet them. This could be a technical advisor, if you have one; or a friend. It's best if this person has some relevant technical expertise in what you're trying to build (i.e. someone who does embedded software isn't the best person to assess someone to build an enterprise SaaS app).

Sandy Fischler Experiential Marketing Director | Event Producer | Event Management | Entrepreneur

July 14th, 2014

Everyone else covered the difference between lead developer and CTO - I'll add in some fantastic resources from Tony Karrer - who was a mentor at the incubator I went through. He has a blog dedicated to how startups should work with a CTO and development team. I really can't recommend enough that you spend some time there.

John Pettitt Visionary multi platform engineering executive and technology entrepreneur

August 4th, 2014

A CTO's job is to help shape the business vision of the company and then to oversee translating it into solid, maintainable, reliable technology.   I strongly advise against hiring an engineer with the idea of them becoming CTO.  It's ok to look for a CTO who can code, but coding is only part of the job, as others have pointed out a CTO is the technical face of the management team and needs communication and people skills you may not find in a typical developer.

Jim Hunter Chief Scientist & Technology Evangelist at Greenwave Systems Inc

July 11th, 2014

Great suggestions thus far.  As a start-up, your CTO will have many responsibilities.  In addition to managing the product technology, the CTO will likely be the chief architect, determine the coding guidelines and tools used for all technical development, QA and bug tracking.  The CTO may even be the public technical face of the company, which includes communicating with other executives and investors on behalf of your company.  Finally, your CTO will be directly responsible for selecting your future technical team, something that is key to your success.   I advise that you should leverage several competent and proven technical experts to help evaluate prospective candidates.  Perhaps FD has some adviser recommendations you can tap for this important process.

Panos Kougiouris Founder at NeatSchool

July 11th, 2014

Many entrepreneurs wonder what a technical advisor does; well here is one way to make use of one. Find a techie professional with accomplishments who would be the ideal CTO but has other commitments and recruit him to help you. Interviewing and helping you find the perfect candidate should be one of his main responsibilities in this stage. The point is that it will be much easier to find an advisor than a full-time co-founder but you can still get the ball rolling this way. You will get access to his network and you will have somebody to bounce ideas etc. Good Luck!!