What does a Startup CTO do?

David Schwartz Multi-Platform (Desktop+Mobile) Rapid Prototyping + Dev, Tool Dev

May 27th, 2015

I've noticed people keep talking about CTOs here, and I thought it would be useful for people to say what their particular idea of a CTO's role is. I'm not looking for some textbook definition; I can search Google as well as anybody. 

What I'm asking is ... what do YOU think a CTO's role in YOUR business is or would be?

Karl Schulmeisters Founder ExStreamVR

May 27th, 2015

hmm  As a startup CTO I wore the following hats

  • Enterprise Architect - aligning technology and business vision
  • Chief Technologist - selecting the technologies and platforms we were going to use in our implementation
  • Program Manager - writing the detailed functional spec
  • Lead Architect - Writing the architectural spec for the product
  • Technical HR - finding and hiring the dev team
  • Corporate IT staff - basically setting up  our corporate IT infrastructure (and maintaining it)
  • Project Lead - just that - lead the development team
  • SCRUM  Master - run the daily standups and solve the blocking  issues
  • Developer - write code that was not mainline
  • DB Architect - Design the DB schema for the product
  • DB Admin - admin the DB (build scripts for Index regen etc)
  • Lead QA - lead QA
  • Lead ITSupport - field and triage all client problems
  • Technology visionary - plan version 2 and Version 3
  • CIO - pull the information needed for our business ops
  • Technical Evangelist - evangelize our technology
  • Social Media Manager - manage corporate social media comms
  • Blogger - blog on subjects related to our product
  • Technical Sales - Enaged in technical sales discussions.

And I'm probably missing some.   So this is  kinda what I would expect from a CTO in a startup.

Panos Kougiouris Founder at NeatSchool

May 27th, 2015

In a startup environment, a CTO needs to have very deep technical knowledge of what the company does and how it relates to the industry AND is also very capable (communication/soft skills) to convey that to all other functions AND customers. In my ideal startup, and frankly every startup smaller than say 100 people, the CTO needs to be hands on. He also needs to have technical leadership skills and background to command the respect of the product building team. Then it is guaranteed that he will be talking about what the company really does vs. what he thinks the company should be doing.

In practice, it is very hard to find somebody who can execute both the internally and externally focused role. So most startups settle for a CTO who is either mostly internally focused or mostly externally focused and other executives complement his skills and interests. 

A lot also depends on the stage of the startup. In early building product stages, a hands on internally focused CTO is what you need. Later, one who can sit in a customer meeting and convey that the company knows what you they are doing on the technical front becomes equally important.

Finally always remember, the executive function is a team function so always look at what the rest of the team looks like and what skills you are missing. For instance, if your CEO or a VP of Sales/Marketing is an x-engineer who leaves and breathes the space you can more easily afford an internally focused hands-on CTO. 

Benjamin Olding Former Co-founder, Board Member at Jana

May 28th, 2015

I assume most people are assuming a web/mobile startup on this thread - I'm thinking along those lines at least. For other areas, it's different. A long time ago, I worked for a CTO at a silicon chip startup for example; he had a very different role.

CTOs can do a lot, but I think there's a lot of flexibility in how you define the role depending on who his or her team members are. So, for example, I don't doubt Karl was the Social Media Manager and held the CTO title while he did it, but I'm not sure how helpful it is to highlight that specifically... it really just highlights that when you don't have a social media manager yet and you need one, you have to rely on adaptable people like Karl. His ability to do that makes him a great startup team member, no doubt, but I don't think it makes anyone a better or worse CTO to be able to step up like that.

It might be more interesting to pose the question of what uniquely should a CTO not mess up. In other words, what are some things that only he or she can tank the company on. It's kind of like that line about the Tour de France: you can't win it today, but you sure can lose it.

For me, it's:

1) Technical interviews of your engineering staff (regardless of who ends up managing them and regardless of who conducts the interview)

2) Where do you draw the internal lines between your systems. (The problem with this one is if you do this right, no one will notice you did anything at all.)

That's pretty much it for me. After that, it's great if he or she can be a good startup citizen and work like crazy on whatever they can do - code, manage, recruit, social media I guess... but that's all about contributing, not uniquely contributing - other roles in the company can potentially contribute to those areas too.

Note that both of these are expertise requirements, not hustle requirements. You should pay attention to the startup CTO who seems to not work that hard, yet is never surrounded by drama; that's not necessarily a bad sign. In contrast, you might want to be at least a little suspicious of the CTO who is consistently working 80 hour weeks and having the servers crash constantly. At a minimum, you are severely under-staffing him or her: that's nothing to brag on.

If you have a CTO and do not have a different head of engineering management, then they also need to fulfill the requirements that only a VP of Eng can mess up:

1) Sourcing of technical candidates at a volume high enough that you can make on average one hire per month (or more if you're growing fast - but even if you're not, you need to be able to close technical reqs in a reasonable time span or people start to hate the hiring process - 4 weeks is a good goal).

2) An organizational system of updating and QAing the code base that can still function reasonably well even if the head of engineering is away for 2 weeks.

3) An engineering culture that is neither overly-argumentative nor suspicious of new hires (i.e. inclusive, not exclusive).

4) A product+engineering culture that has product people and engineering people feeling like teammates.

Anything after achieving all that is again bonus in my mind. In other words, if you have that, then increasing your productivity should be a question of spending more money. If you're cash constrained, you might want the VP of Engineering to also be coding, for example, to add to your productivity without spending more. However, if you don't have the above, then adding money generally just creates a lot of drama, not more output. Note that none of the requirements in theory require technical expertise, but in practice it's unrealistic to think you'll achieve #2 or #3 without it.

If your CTO is the head of engineering and also the head of product, then I'd argue he or she better also be a co-founder... And once your title is co-founder, I'd argue it doesn't matter what else your title also is: you are responsible for cash flow and hiring (full cycle: sourcing, screening, closing, retaining). If you do that well, nothing else that you do really matters (I mean, you'll work hard and you'll feel like it matters, but you're probably in good shape regardless). If you do that poorly, nothing else that you do will make up for that failure unfortunately.

Larry Lancaster Always working on the "Next Big Thing"

May 27th, 2015

John and Karl are spot-on, insofar as describing the day-to-day reality of a CTO at a startup is concerned, especially at a lean startup. I also wanted to touch on what can make the CTO role *uniquely* valuable. Firstly, I would back up a step and ask whether you should have a CTO at all.

Consider the following questions:

(1) Is yours a technology company?
(2) Is your technology a substantial part of what makes you different from, or better than, the competition?
(3) Is a technological innovation central to how you will deliver extraordinary value to market?

If the answers to these questions are 'yes', then a CTO role from day 1 probably makes sense. There are other circumstances where it might make sense, but in this situation it would be natural... expected, even. And in such a case, I would expect the CTO to deliver unique value through the following sorts of activities:

(1) inventing and/or productizing the core technology
(2) articulating the importance of the technology and evangelizing its disruptive role in the marketplace
(3) formulating an IP strategy to protect the technology, which may or may not include patents
(4) filing such patents if they are part of the IP strategy
(5) creating the first roadmap to align development with competitive threats and market opportunities

Hardik Sondagar

May 29th, 2015

The role of a CTO is to ensure the company has a path to get competitive access to the technology needed to address its product road map.
The bridge between Business and Development

Peter Johnston Businesses are composed of pixels, bytes & atoms. All 3 change constantly. I make that change +ve.

June 3rd, 2015

The C Level of a corporation is part of the OWM business model. OWM - stands for Old White Men. This model proved to significantly underperform the market, to be corrupt (ask Mr Blatter who operated this model) and to create inflexible companies which failed in times of change.

Do NOT follow this model. 

The proven to be more effective model is the current army model (they used to operate the OWM model and it cost 7 million lives in WW1) of small teams of experts with distributed responsiblity but clear objectives. Each member of the team defers to the other in their area of expertise ad the team can act without any single individual at all times with distributed responsibiltiy - rather like the internet, which was built with this philosophy in mind.

In this environment there shouldn't be a CTO, but a team who together drive the project forward and defer to eachothers' expertise. It works well in companies like Google where this model exists. Try it.

Roger Wu co-founder at cooperatize, native advertising platform

May 27th, 2015

In my opinion, the role evolves depending on the size of your company.  In the beginning the CTO might be a hands on developer that eventually manages a team of developers just like the CEO is most likely the company's first sales person and then becomes the chief evangelist / face / liaison of the company.

John Petrone CTO at LaunchPad Central

May 27th, 2015

Just to follow up on Karl's very good answer, I'd say that a startup CTO needs to be something of a jack of all trades when it comes to technology issues. In the last week at my current early stage startup I've:

- phone screened and interviewed engineering candidates
- run our daily standup meeting
- created and updated tickets in our agile project management tool
- researched a variety of technology directions
- put together and presented a engineering update deck to the board of directors
- revised my 1 year budget
- reviewed and commented on a key sales contract regarding technology issues
- reviewed some code
- managed a variety of SaaS platforms (Github, Atlassian, Slack, Google Apps, PagerDuty, Pingdom, etc)
- did a bit of systems admin work on our server instances
- set up a new laptop for someone
- and found some time to write a little test code too.

To contrast that with previous roles I've had as a CTO of public companies with 100's of employees in my group, I still had overall responsibility for these tasks, just did not normally tackle them myself - when you are a CTO at a startup the buck stops with you for many issues.

Tomas Fecko CTO at Mongoo and Librade

May 29th, 2015

  • Manage research and development (R&D)
  • Monitor technology and social trends that could impact the company
  • Communicate the company's technology strategy to partners, management, investors and employees. 
  • Maintain current information about technology standards and compliance regulations. 
  • Share knowledge, mentor, and educate the organization’s investors, management, staff, partners, customers, and stakeholders with regard to the company’s technological vision, opportunities, and challenges.
  • Ensure company technical problems are resolved in a timely and cost-effective manner.
  • Supervise recruitment, training, retention, and organization of all development staff in accordance with the company hiring process, personnel policies, and budget requirements.
  • Contribute to open source software development, standardization of technologies, and evolution of best practices by collaborating with peers outside the company, releasing code, presenting at conferences, and writing for publication (online or offline).
  • Maintain up-to-date knowledge of technology standards, industry trends, emerging technologies, and software development best practices by attending relevant conferences.
  • Promulgate coding conventions and documentation standards.
  • Conduct code reviews and specification conformance testing as defined by the selected software development methodology.
  • Select, deploy, and monitor performance profiling tools and procedures.

Nadir Bagaveyev CEO and Chief Designer at BAGAVEEV CORPORATION

May 29th, 2015

I think your question is not right. First question should be: Does my startup need CTO? Second Question: Can CEO be a CTO at the same time, or your team is or needs to be well differentiated?
Only after that you can say: CTO does everything that does not involve "external mechanics" of a company - sales, fundraising, taxes, hiring etc, but is a grease monkey who keeps motor running (motor is not cash with which you buy gasoline, but actual stuff made of metal that brings value to this hulk of metal called a car)