How to identify and address CTO smells: Process

We’d wager that as you moved from senior engineer to technology leader — and maybe eventually CTO — you either witnessed or made a number of mistakes yourself — maybe you continue to see/make them now.

The key to survival as a leader is self-awareness and the ability to evolve and adapt; through continuous learning, you can nip cognitive biases in the bud and re-frame your approach. With this in mind, we’ve created the CTO Smells Series, to help identify the most common issues and teach you how to work through them.

‘Fall in love with the process and the results will come.’ Anon.

Process, procedure, operation

Whatever you call it, the actions taken to achieve your particular end are the crux of your business. Failing to get parts of the process right will impact everything and everyone within the company. When you’re investing time, money and energy into something, you have to make sure the steps you are taking not only add up, but actually move things forward. There will be times however, when certain actions may appear beneficial, but further down the line, turn out to be quite the opposite. By thinking about the possible outcomes in advance and implementing effective policies and proactive roadmaps, it is possible to foresee and address process pitfalls, before they happen.

1 — Poor hiring: The cost of a bad recruitment strategy can run into thousands of pounds for a company, regardless of size, but can actually be fatal for early stage startups. Things like: hiring too fast, hiring toxic personalities or people with ‘small fish, big pond’ attitudes are common, but avoidable. With 42 percent of small business owners acknowledging hiring new talent as a challenge, often the focus can shift too much in the direction of ‘how’ rather than ‘who’ to find when both are of great importance.

Solution: Adopt a formal hiring process:

  • Appoint a second interviewer to make sure you have a sounding board and that both your opinions on the interviewee, match. It will also go some way to removing bias;
  • Interview as many candidates as possible for the role so you have options and can see who is more likely to fit (if the first hire goes wrong, you also have back-up);
  • Do your homework: look at the potential hire’s previous experience and check their references;
  • Don’t rush. Yes time is money, but hastiness may be more money; and
  • Trial them — pay close attention to the person’s performance over the first three months; if they aren’t up to scratch, tackle it early before the problem gets bigger.

2 — Inability to frame technology challenges against business challenges: A technical platform can develop issues for any number of reasons: poor quality assurance, un-metered technical debt, sloppy coding practices, lack of documentation etc. Translating the effects and urgency of these issues to non-technical areas of the business can present a problem especially if (as is usual), a CEO is less technical than a CTO and fails to understand the need to dedicate time to researching and improving communication between services and would rather increase efforts elsewhere.

Solution: Approach it as though you’re explaining the concept to the everyday consumer who doesn’t have a technical background and simplify the terms so that they are both understandable and relatable. It can also help to put yourself in the shoes of the end user and think about the reverse situation: what would they say to you when raising an issue?

I.e.We need to improve the interface between services, especially the user login portal as the latency is causing timeouts which the monitoring isn’t catching.


We’ve received customer reports about login issues and page hangs. It’s unclear why it hasn’t been picked up so we need to find out why and prevent it.

3 — Lack of succession planning: Change is inevitable and while sometimes it’s hard to envisage needing a replacement, especially at the beginning of your leadership journey, failure to picture the executive future of a company may mean you can’t keep up with its evolution and respond to the transformations.

Solution: Approach succession systematically: identifying leaders early will reap dividends when a business scales. It will also ensure that every junior is given the necessary training and development to be able to adapt to new role and responsibilities as they come to the fore.

4 — Lack of technological vision:“New technologies can provide a genuine competitive edge, but the organisation has to make the commitment to use technology to build new processes and business models.” says Angela Herrin, research and special projects editor of the Harvard Business Review.

Solution: Your company needs to be a pioneer, rather than a follower or cautious organisation as the latter can suffocate on the adoption of analytics and other technology solutions due to internal cultural resistance. Without such vision, you risk making the same errors as post-Bill Gates Microsoft and being reactive rather than proactive in a fast-paced market. As Matt Buchanan of The New Yorker says:

“The lesson may be that having visionaries scattered among the ranks simply isn’t enough; there needs to be one on top, too.”

5 — Lack of belief: This is simple yet problematic; if anyone within the team doesn’t support the business vision or the product / service being offered then it becomes a hard-to-impossible sell.

Solution: This needs to be tackled at both the hiring and development stages, and requires a open level of communication. It’s difficult for a team to support a company’s vision if either they aren’t clear about what it is, or that vision is ever-changing. Coaching is the best way to do this: you need to convince people that they are building and selling the best possible product / service. They must know the ins, the outs, and everything in between, and you need to monitor their commitment so you can ensure the coaching has impacted correctly. If / when the vision or the product changes, re-coach because without ongoing transparency, belief won’t happen organically.

6 — Not enough focus on quality: Managing quality is crucial for startups and small businesses because first-rate products and services help to maintain customer satisfaction and loyalty, and reduce the risk and cost of addressing bugs or issues at a later date. It’s easy to become blinded by numbers and take your foot off the ‘excellence’ gas, but maintaining it is key to growth and ultimately, profit.

Solution: Create a culture of excellence and communicate these expectations so they become the shared norm. Implement automated testing, make lean technology choices and as Steve Jobs once quipped: “Be the yardstick of quality”.

7 — Inability to manage upwards or sideways: This is a skill that all managers and leaders must master in order to provide the best value to the organisation and prevent burnout from unmet expectations and misaligned priorities. Without regular and open conversations with leaders in other departments, it’s easy for a CTO to become complacent about the needs of their peers and ignore or misrepresent issues that come from those other business areas. This means they may miss topics that could benefit the business or even prevent key issues, that technology can resolve, from arising in the first place.

Solution: Scheduling regular 1:1s with peer managers is as important as scheduling them with direct reports — regular get-togethers where two-way feedback can be given avoids assumptions being made on either side, and improves sharing of domain knowledge across all departments. It’s also a great opportunity to compare notes and share ‘war stories’.

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