I’m working with a solo founder who paid some engineers to make him an MVP. It’s a starting point, but it needs some work and technical direction. We agree he needs someone who has both technical skill and an entrepreneur’s vision for where this product should be headed. Now the internet is full of engineers who say they are capable of being CTOs. The founder has received a lot of interest because he’s dedicated to the idea and is willing to pay a little more than other early-stage founders to bring on a CTO.
Now that we have a lot of interest we are determining the most important qualities that this CTO should have. What are they?
A good CTO can do a lot for a firm at this stage. What you should look for is someone who not only gets the technology and the vision for the product (that's the minimum standard), but also can communicate it clearly to potential clients and investors. A common mistake is to conflate the CTO with VP of Engineering...in a small firm that may be the same, but while many CTO's can also run engineering the latter is not true. Your founder/CEO friend should be looking for someone he can count on as a partner in the business, not just an employee.
Past behavior is the best predicator of future behavior. Find someone who was the CTO of a successful startup before.
I've been a startup CTO multiple times, both for my own company and as a hired gun. I don't know if my experience is going to help you but here it goes! In my experience, the title “CTO” gets thrown around a lot – and with different meanings. A lot of recruiting companies label a job as such, when they are really looking for a mid- to senior level engineer but don’t want to pay market rates. In a company with less than 50 people, and under two or three million in revenue or investment, the CTO has three distinct, and often conflicting roles: (a) s/he must be able to set the short-term technical direction of the company; (b) be able to contribute to technical delivery either as a developer, or in QA or DevOps; and (c) be the company’s best sales engineer. These are three distinct skillsets and it is difficult to find one person who can expertly fill all these roles. The mistake I’ve seen small companies make over and over is to try to find someone who can do all three – and do them well. That, again in my experience, leads to a lot of wasted time and resources before the company figures out that they need different people to fill these roles. In that light, my first answer to your question is that if you do find someone who can fill all three of these roles, consider yourself lucky and hire him or her. These unicorns do exist but you’ll need a lot of luck to find one! If you don’t know someone like that, then in my opinion you should focus on what you need within the next 6 to 12 months, and hire for that role. As you progress and grow, you can bring on complimentary talent. Furthermore, I will contradict some of the comments here with respect to “past experience.” Contrary to what is said, past performance is not at all a leading indicator of future achievements. The worst thing you can do to yourself and your company is to bring on someone who might do an excellent job for 3 to 6 months and then jump to a company that pays more, or offers better quality of life or benefits than a startup can. The key to being successful as a startup CTO is passion for the project. So my best advice is for you to set that as your number one desired qualification. Don’t get hung up on technical details. Most smart engineers can quickly come up the speed with new technology. Beyond a passion for the project, look for a personality and temperament that is a good fit with yourself and the existing team. Finally, think about the advice I often give small companies: What problem are you trying to solve? And how do you think a CTO would solve that problem for you? Based on the little information you have provided, I would venture a guess that a viable option for you may be to hire a CTO-advisor, part-time, and pair that person with an engineer who aspires to the CTO role. That way you will have access to deep technical knowledge, have built a contingency in that multiple people understand at least the basics of your product, and your engineer will have a growth path within the company, giving him or her more incentive to do a great job and to stick around a while.
From my experience as CEO and CTO it depends on how difficult and big is your project.
When the project has a lot of custom features or has a lot of users/traffic then it is important to get on board as a co-founder a good CTO.
In order to get one your idea, project, product/service and team should looks good and promising, so you can attract and retain a good CTO.
The most important qualities of a good CTO are:
- Good and wide technical skills, so he/she understand all the parts of the system, he/she can lead how to solve any technical related problem and its able to detect and select good developers/programmers/ITs for each part.
- Entrepreneur and strategic vision to go aligned with the CEO/COO and be able to anticipate technology changes that can affect the business.
- Good communication and leadership so he/she can communicate well with the other stakeholders and the development/system team.
- Good understanding of the product/service and marketing so the development is always aligned with the product roadmap adding constantly value to it.
If he/she has previous experience in a successful startup it should be easier to verify these points.