The 7 roles of a CTO
My journey to define my focus and role
This post is about me figuring out what a CTO does. I tried to be methodical and deep about it, and broke it down to a few different aspects.
It gave me some structure and helped talking about my responsibility, I hope it will be useful for more people
Why I started thinking about it?
On July 1st 2021, I started to work on building a startup with my partner Noam Bernstein. We both were 100% committed and made the expectation settings ahead of time, but didn’t decide what we will build.
The first month was ideation. The second and third months were getting funded and opening a bank account. Months 4-9 were hiring and team building. Throughout this time we continued to meet customers and understand their businesses.
As the team evolved, and the effort to build our product kicked off, I’ve been starting to wander around. Asking myself and others - what is my role?
My preconception about the role
I worked with some good CTOs over the time: Barak Naveh in Snaptu and Iftach Bar in riseup both Managed me. I also have some good CTO friends like Alon Shalita of Second Nature.
There is a connecting thread between them all: They are deeply technological.
Each of them is the mentor you want when you grow up as a developer. This was fortunate for my growth, two of them were my mentors at work and the third helped me as a supporter and friend.
So my preconception based on my limited experience would be that a CTO is
Deep and passionate about technology
Leading the technology vision for their companies
Now, my concern was that this CTO persona doesn’t fit my strength and passion. I am not a “gotta-have-my-coding-time” kinda CTO. I don’t care enough about the nuance between react and angular 😲. After all these are tools, means for an end - solving customers problems - and not the end itself.
When I needed to make the decision of which technology stack to use. I used some shallow reasoning to pick node.js and react:
a. It is in fashion. The tools became the industry standards because of their stability and versatility.
b. I used node.js in riseup and led a team that did some react while I was in Facebook.
c. “code-is-code” - we can build what we need with that. After all, code/tech stack is a tool.
Getting comfortable with my role
I started talking about my preconception with a few people in my support crew and my challenges with it. It became a good opportunity for me to go deep and learn something, so I did.
To my rescue came a tweet from several months ago: @_maintenance a twitter star I admire, built a mentorship list. This is a list of mostly-tech people willing to mentor randos from the internet.
Since I already know from Gabby’s dollhouse that asking for help is a super power. I opened the list and started looking for mentors. I looked for CTOs and people that look like they could tell me about that role.
I scheduled 6 zoom meetings with people on the list as well as a couple people outside the list that I got connected to.
After my meetings, it became clear to me that there are many nuances about the role. It depend on the size and type of compny.
I clustered the responsibilities to 7 different roles that CTOs take on:
Role #1 - CTO is an executive
This was the first thing I heard from my first mentor @nukemberg
Funny enough - the CTO role is not to “Execute” but rather to “Define”/”Describe”/”Direct” the company towards achieving its vision.
This means leadership meetings, strategy setting, budget planning, etc.
When the companies are small, some of the execution can be done by a capable CTO, but it is not an essential part of the executive role.
This theme returned through the discussion with the other mentors. My learning was that any CxO or C level title [according to @nukemberg] is an executive, so even a non-founder CTO is an executive role.
Role #2 - CTO is a representative
In a way, the CTO is the technology face of the company, it is a symbolic role.
A good track record and reputation of the CTO will make hard things easier.
It will be easier to get funded. It will be easier to hire top talent. And it will be easier to convince customers and partners to work with the company.
A CTO is the most senior technology title in the company and it matters a lot. This was a rare consensus amongst the mentors. A good CTO is building a good company by using his reputation and track record. The brand of the companies the CTO worked in is sometimes more important than his actions as a CTO.
Role #3 - CTO is [sometimes] a people manager
This was a first major split between my mentors, some mentors are not managers. Others, like manage the engineering org.
The CTOs that don’t manage usually hire a VP R&D early on to take on people management of the engineering org. Usually, the engineering org is the biggest org when the company starts. In some cases the CTO manages the VP R&D and in others, the CEO manages the VP R&D.
The VP R&D is the operational figure who works with the executive functions - CXO from Role #1.
When a CTO is managing the engineering org, they are accountable for the operational role. It is a time consuming effort but also one of the most common things that CTOs do.
Role #4 - CTO is [sometimes] hands on developer
In my definition - a developer writes or reads code. sometimes they leading design and architecture sessions and make technical decisions.
It is common and that caused my preconception of CTO before this exploration. I thought that a CTO must get deep into the technology details.
If a CTO is also a strong developer, they are likely to spend much of their time working with the development team.
There are two different cases where I saw this:
If the company is very small, the CTO is likely to build the prototype and first few versions.
If the product is deep and technical, a novel way to achieve something the market hasn’t seen before. For example - a complex AI ranking system where the CTO is an AI expert.
Role #5 - CTO owns Security and IT
This was a big one for me, while engineering orgs get most of the glory, there are areas that usually get less attention but are still important.
In some cases Security and Compliance are essential for the company. They are prerequisites to putting a product in the hands of customers. This is true in regulated fields, like Insurance, Finance and Health.
Even in unregulated domains, someone has to make sure people get the right equipment to do their jobs. Someone needs to build the right security measures to protect customer/partner information.
When the company is small, the CTO can do most work themselves with help of freelancers. As the companies gets larger, a CISO usually owns security and in some cases compliance and IT as well. The CISO may report to the CTO or not [related to role #3]
Role #6 - CTO is a salesperson
I worked in B2C companies and this role is more true for B2B where the second B is enterprise. It is more true when the product is more technical or when the product targeting tech people. In those cases the CTO needs to make sure the company is able to deliver on their promises. In many ways the CTO is the chief sales engineer in company.
Being part of the sales process is time consuming. In the cases of my mentors, this can take the majority of their time. In some cases it can become hard to be a salesperson as well as a hands-on developer and/or people manager. It makes sense to delegate one of them.
There is an advantage of having the CTO engaged with sales and customer integrations. The process feeds insights to the CTO who then uses their executive role [#1] or hands on prototyping [#4]. They influence the product and engineering direction. While at the same time creating measurable impact on the company (increase ARR)
In my chat with Nissim Tapiro who is a CTO in a large scale SMB self-serve model. He suggested that building a data organization as a parallel to the salesperson role. Data can provide insights and is a way to chart the direction of product and engineering.
Role #7 - CTO does whatever it takes
In all my discussions, the CTO is a catch-all doing whatever it takes, based on their skills. Things that some CTOs do:
Product exploration and leadership
Own DevOps and developer efficiency work
Hiring all tech roles [design, PM and others]
Own parts of the company culture
What am I taking from this?
It is clear for me that role #1 [executive] and role #2 [representative] are inescapable, like it or not. It is a good challenge to define how I do them well and be proactive to invest in those two roles.
Most mentors were doing both role #3 [people manager] and role #4 [hands on developer], some took only #4.
As my passion lies in #3 more than #4 I am not the right person to be hands on. I choose be a manager and not hands on. My background is making this an easy decision and I know how to do this part well.
In the future, I can see a world where I renounce my people manager role too. By hiring a strong VP that can manage people better than I can. Speaking to the mentors helped me come up with the following hypothesis
It is possible to be a CTO and be neither an IC nor a people manager
While I didn’t met anyone who was neither #3 nor #4 - they must exist and it might be a good future for me.
Role #5 [CTO Owns Security and IT] is a big important role I need to own and do well. This is often overlooked when the company is small, and causes pain when the company gets larger.
I will own IT and Security and invest my time and effort in progressing both.
In my case it means allocating time for security work every week. I will spend time on our IT processes and SaaS tools used by various parts of the company that are not engineering. For example - Marketing, Compliance and Customer Success.
Role #6 [salesperson] is not a priority now for our business so I can decide not to take it on. This is an ongoing discussion between Noam and myself.
As a note, having Data as a parallel to selling, Data is something I will take on very soon.
Other things I do and fall under Role #7 [Doing whatever it takes]
I love hiring, so I will reach out and hire people when I can.
I love building a good culture, so I will take lead on the culture and people stuff
I want to thank the mentors for making the time to talk to me: @nukemberg, @shemmag8, @LimorLah, @esapir, Nissim Tapiro, Alon Shalita, @barnashon and @barnhartguy. I’m grateful for your openness and kindness.
Big thanks to @_maintenance who compiled a list of talented kind people.
I am part of the mentor list, and quite eager to help whoever wants to talk about anything in this post or out of this post.
Please feel free to ping me at firstname.lastname@example.org or set time on my calendar my phone number is in the second link.
I’ll appreciate your feedback and comments here or in private.
I believe that role #2 (representative) and role #6 (salesperson) coincide. TBH - most CTOs know nothing about sales, but can do a good job of persuading other engineers (potential buyers) that their product is worth the money. To keep things simple, I would merge these two roles.
As for IT and Security - I wonder how much hands on the CTO should be here. Both domains (especially the latter) are complex, and most CTOs are not qualified to lead them. Instead, I would argue that a good CTO should hire the right people to lead these domains. For a fintech company - the sooner the better.
Thanks for sharing such an insightful information.