CTOs come in many shapes and sizes. But in a fast-growing startup, a person is often expected to morph through different versions of themselves as the company grows and demands on the role change rapidly.
This blogpost explores some of the challenges of growing with the role, how to acquire some of the skills that will be needed along the way, and when to consider if you are still the best fit for the role - and vice versa.
Someone in my network recently reached out to ask if I knew a good candidate for a CTO role. When I probed them on the profile, they wanted someone who was a hands-on developer (full stack, of course) but also flexible, creative, visionary, and strategic, and would quickly be able to adapt to leading international development teams, driving operational efficiency, dealing with enterprise customers, handling cybersecurity, and contributing to the business strategy.
That’s a lot to ask from one person! And while this may be an extreme example of someone who’s unable to prioritize the requirements for a given role, it is kind of an illustration of the many needs that a business may look for a CTO to solve for them over a period of relatively few years.
In early-stage startups, the CTO often wears many hats. They may be co-founder, product manager and office tech support person. But most of all, they are typically the lead developer - maybe even the only developer for a while.
This means they build a very intimate knowledge of all aspects the system, though often without documenting this knowledge, both because time-to-market is of the essence, and because there isn’t a big practical need for it when you are a small team of co-located developers who can easily bounce questions off to the few senior gurus on the team.
If you recognize yourself as the guru here, maybe it’s time to stop and think about how a small, continuous investment in documenting some of your knowledge from now on can set you up for being less of a bottleneck for the team at a later stage. And how taking small steps to make the team less dependent on you will eventually give you the flexibility to acquire the skills you need to be the best CTO for the company in the years to come.
The next step on the CTO’s journey is typically to start scaling the team. You might be lucky enough to know some good people you have worked with in the past and convince them to join you, or you may be fighting for developers’ attention on job boards and LinkedIn. You might be bringing in students and teaching them the ropes, shaping their approach to software development for years to come.
If I think back on some of my early experiences scaling a team, I should have definitely invested more time in learning about good hiring practices, and structuring the approach more, rather than just going with the flow, and assessing culture fit on a gut feel.
I would also say that now is definitely the time to learn about inclusive hiring practices, and take a critical look at the diversity of the team you are building. If you come out of this phase with a team consisting of white 20-something men who love football, you are really really going to struggle to change that later on, as many other candidates may not feel like they belong in a homogenous group where people like themselves will invariably be the odd one out.
In this phase, you become a people manager. You become responsible for other people’s wellbeing, engagement and success at work. When I first became a manager, I had no idea what the job actually entailed. I spent a lot of time still developing stuff. It’s very tangible to produce code, you go home and feel like you contributed something.
Success in management is indirect, you rarely see the output of your actions right away. You have to acquire the patience to invest in long-term success and relieve yourself of the need to feel productive on a day-to-day basis, when that is what’s been needed every step of the company’s journey so far.
And this is one of the key chasms to cross.
Do you want to get serious about taking on the people management side as the tech team scales to 10-20 people, or are you really the happiest when you get to code?
The CTO doesn’t necessarily have to be the people leader for the tech team, and if that’s not the path you want to take, consider bringing in a VP Engineering - reporting either to you or to the CEO - who enjoys that side of things. I’ve seen many examples of brilliant CTOs who have chosen to define the role more on the chief architect / lead developer side and where they can really focus on using their technical skills & strengths. Just make sure someone else is covering the other side, then.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a need to free yourself from some of the day-to-day work in the team because, in order to grow with the role as the team and the company scales, you will need to find time to expose yourself to new experiences that can help you grow leadership & strategy skills.
That requires getting out of the comfort zone of your tech team. Seek out opportunities to participate in forums and activities where you get a broader array of perspectives.
Don’t have time for this, you say? Keep in mind that scaling your skills to meet the organizational demands is as important a project for you as CTO as scaling your software platform to meet customer demands. So make the time.
The views expressed in this blog are mine, not those of my employer.
Want more from Anne-Sofie? In our newsletter from December 2021, she responds to our questions around how do you balance hiring for the present and for the future, how do you keep your culture while scaling, and what is she working on now.