3 questions that determine if you’re ready for a CTO

August 8, 2021

7 minutes to read

Opinions expressed by Contractor the contributors are theirs.


As the founder of a low-code development platform that startups use to build web and mobile apps, a common question I get from my clients is, “When should I hire a CTO?” “

My answer to this question is not the same for everyone. The answer depends on whether a company has technical or non-technical founders, whether they have developed an MVP or a roadmap and other factors.

Before giving any advice, I first ask a few questions about their current situation:

  • What level of funding do they currently have in place and what are their funding plans for the next 24 months?

  • Do they currently have someone in a technical leadership role and what is the makeup of their current team?

  • How are product requirements gathered and prioritized today? Should the CTO lead this as well?

  • Do they have or plan to have an in-house or outsourced team?

  • To what extent does their product represent a real engineering challenge?

The answers to these questions help determine if a CTO is required or even achievable. For example, if the company has insufficient capital, a small addressable market (less than $ 1 billion), and limited upside potential, it will be extremely difficult to hire a CTO unless ‘he does not become a full-fledged technical co-founder with very significant capital. stake.

Where can a CTO make a difference?

There are many reasons to hire a CTO, but the main ones are:

  • When the technical needs of your business are important – While many CTOs can help with the tasks at hand, their real impact is the implementation of processes, tools and a team to get the job done in a fast, efficient and scalable way. This is true whether the engineering team is in-house, outsourced, or a combination of the two.

  • When experienced, decisive leadership is required – A CTO does more than just provide direction to the IT team. They can also guide the direction of a company as a whole, as they are used to working at the intersection of business and technology.

  • When a large-scale technology upgrade is required – If productivity is hampered by outdated technology, a savvy CTO can help you identify and move your team to the right technology stack.

  • When a large group needs a CTO – When a company achieves scale and success, it is not uncommon for its initial technical team to struggle to take it to the next level. Boards of directors and investors often notice and comment on this problem. Solving this problem often requires adding an experienced technology leader who has a proven track record of growing. You will find that this decision also satisfies potential customers who may need a knowledgeable CTO as part of their buying decision.

Before you begin the recruiting process, you’ll want to have a clear understanding of the issues you’re trying to solve and a pretty good idea of ​​what you’ll be asking someone to do. If you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish – or how to select the right candidate – you might end up hiring someone who looks great on paper, but doesn’t quite match up with reality.

Related: Finding Your Way to the C-Suite: 6 Tips for Businesswomen

Is a CTO required at this time?

A common misconception is that a CTO is an experienced developer who can roll up their sleeves. While some may meet this expectation, it is a rather narrow view of who a CTO is and what they can do.

Founders should avoid giving inflated titles to people who lack the experience or skills to move a business forward. A big mistake is when people assume that a good coder is a good leader. Frankly, a lot of great coders aren’t great managers.

Another key point: just because someone has a senior developer or architect title doesn’t mean they’re ready to become CTO. While technical know-how is part of what a CTO offers, what you really get with a CTO is expertise gained over time and executive leadership skills.

According to Agil’s research8, CTOs typically have 24 years of professional experience. They will have held eight positions in four companies, having spent no more than five years, but no less than a year in each role. This experience makes CTO visionaries who often set long-term goals and think outside the box.

This is important because I have seen many startups start looking for a CTO because they just needed someone to sort out technical issues. If this is the urgent need, a vice president of engineering is the best hire. In most organizational structures, the VP of Engineering makes sure things are running smoothly, deadlines are met, and the team is working efficiently.

If a company is in pre-series A, a vice president of engineering will likely serve them well. All that’s really needed is someone who can occasionally step in, help the development team understand what needs to be built, and educate the founders on what is needed to move on to the next phase. Once an A or B round has been lifted, that’s when a business will need someone who cares less about day-to-day operations and focuses more on the big picture.

Related: Bring Your C-Suite into the Digital Age in 3 Steps

What are the characteristics of a good CTO?

When interviewing someone, I suggest you consider how well they are a strategic catalyst for the business and a technical partner for the leadership team of a business. Confirm that they understand the processes of a successful IT business and how to effectively and efficiently execute critical IT processes.

Ask if they can present a company’s technical vision and execution plan to outsiders, including institutional investors, board members, clients, and industry analysts. Ask them how up to date they are with technological trends. Check that they have strong business communication skills and assess whether they can hire, fire and manage employees without micromanaging.

Along with technical expertise and business acumen, you’ll also want to see how candidates fare in these areas:

  • Vision – Your CTO must be able to offer unique solutions to any business problem. Being able to innovate on demand is essential. Ask candidates for examples of how they solved problems because of their unconventional thinking.
  • Technical partnership – A CTO becomes a true technical partner of the CEO and the management team of the company. They can be a trusted advisor and a reliable resource for meeting the technical needs of the business.
  • Creativity – It goes hand in hand with the vision. An open-minded and flexible CTO will be more successful in determining how new ideas and technologies can be applied. Finding a CTO who sees opportunities that others cannot will serve your business well.
  • Jostle – Restlessness is a good personality trait in a CTO. You will want someone who is not happy with the status quo. In your interviews, try to get a sense of how the candidates have moved companies forward.

The role of a CTO is forward-looking. It’s their job to think about where the product is going and where it needs to be in five to ten years. Think of it in these simple terms: a VP of Engineering is a lot like your MVP (short term thinking) while a CTO is more like a roadmap (long term thinking).

Not all early stage startups need a CTO up front, and they couldn’t get one even if they tried, given the imbalance between supply and demand for these people. What’s important is implementing a solid product vision and generating early traction, then bringing in the right person at the right time to help the business take it to the next level.

Related: How Women Can Finally Close The Gender Gap In The C-Suite

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