<aside> 💡 In a previous blog article, I've talked about the importance of sorting out your business model and product management strategy as top priorities when starting a new venture, but I intentionally didn't really mention how the role of CTO fits into things. This post looks at the approach startup founders might take in identifying a suitable early stage CTO.


Most new founders ask the question "when should I start looking for a CTO" fairly early on in their journey.

Some, as I've discussed, try to jump straight in to commissioning development work, either by hiring permanent development staff, or by outsourcing.

It's not unusual to see job postings for work in early stage startups like "Developer / CTO wanted" or "Lead Developer / CTO wanted". More often than not, these job postings come with an explanation that the successful applicant will be expected to write software (to specification, presumably) full time to start with, and may then be eligible to "graduate" to CTO once they've proved their mettle. Sometimes these roles are explicitly referred to as "CTO in waiting". One way of interpreting this is that startup CTOs are essentially senior software developers.

But is that really true?

A CTO is not a software developer!

Okay, let's get the easy one out of the way first, shall we?

Clearly, a CTO in an established company isn't a software developer. Nobody imagines that the CTO of HSBC or Sky or Tesco is hacking away cranking out code all day (or indeed any of the day!)

Even established tech companies wouldn't expect their CTOs to be doing much, if any, actual hands-on engineering work. If this sounds wrong to you, take a moment to think about other roles in those companies. You wouldn't imagine that the CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) of, say, Facebook — or even a smaller company like Monzo — is writing copy and managing AdWords campaigns and posting to Instagram, would you?

Of course, saying someone doesn't normally do a thing isn't to say they shouldn't and certainly not to say they couldn't. In particular, in the early days of a startup it's very usual to find the leadership team mucking in and doing all the jobs that need to be done. Here, CMOs do write copy, CEOs do make sales calls, COOs do run the payroll themselves and — sure — CTOs often do smash out some software.

But just as a CMO might not actually be that great at writing copy, or managing social, so might a CTO's strongest suit not be software development. Perhaps they are more of a product person, or a process person, or a futurist, or a visionary. Perhaps they are really a people person and happen to be an amazing motivator of software developers, rather than one themselves. To assume that the route to CTO can only be traveled via software development is really to misunderstand the breadth of the field of software product development, and at the same time to do a disservice to all the other integral, skilled professionals who are a part of building tech companies.

A CTO can't be inside a "tech bubble"

<aside> 💡 Note: commonly "tech bubble" refers to a bubble in the sense of financial markets, but I'm rather fond of using it to refer to an organisational silo. Sorry if it causes confusion, but, well, if you don't like it, write your own damn blog 😜


Despite the fact that a CTO isn't just a software developer with a fancy title, they should still be 100% on top of what's going on. This is no more critical than at the very earliest stages, when funds are severely limited, and one misstep can mean lost opportunity cost and a potentially ruinous outcome for a fragile new business. At the earliest stages, an effective CTO needs to be completely attuned to the business itself — all the comings and goings and subtle shifts in direction that tend to occur on a daily basis — as well as specifically their domain, which is creation of software product.

In this respect, it's a serious error to hire a CTO who advocates carving out a siloed "tech bubble" away from the rest of the company; and likewise to hire a CTO who is not granted the trust and autonomy befitting the highest level of leadership in an organisation. In other words, the "C" in CTO has to be legitimate, not just a gimmick to lure in software developers with delusions of grandeur!

<aside> 🚨 I can't count the number of founders I have spoken to who have hired or co-founded ventures with very inexperienced "CTOs", sometimes straight out of university, only to find themselves with a terrible mess on their hands. I would say every one of these stories has resulted in the "CTO" parting ways with the company.


The tech bubble, and the "them and us" attitudes it so often leads to, will certainly be the subject of another blog, but it is worth noting that it seems to be particularly prevalent amongst software developers.