How to strike the balance between passion and professionalism

Getting it right as a startup CTO can be hard

Behind every software startup is an idea that a CTO must make real. As such, it’s important that you are an enthusiastic believer in your company’s idea, while remaining resolutely professional.

IT workers have a reputation as cynics. Having been one and managed many more, it’s sometimes hard to disagree. There is a school of thought that this cynicism is innate — that the same personality traits that make us good with computers make us cynical and dismissive with people and their ideas, but I think there’s another explanation: we’re trained to be like this in order to build good software.

Cynicism is seeing the bad and expecting the worst. While this can be wearying in a social situation it’s an essential frame of mind when building software. Problems and solutions need to be picked apart: ‘How is that going to work when 1,000 people use it at the same time?’, ‘That won’t look right on a tablet’, ‘This will slow down every page on the site’. The questions and attitudes that drive product managers and marketing teams to distraction are normally well-intentioned attempts to make sure that the product is the best it can be.

Developers, testers and sys-admins can get away with that attitude almost all of the time; CTOs however — especially those working for early-stage startups — have to be more cautious. As a senior manager, it is expected (reasonably enough) that you’ve joined the company because you believe in its potential, so if you are not seen to be 100% enthusiastic about your company’s core idea, you are compromised in two ways:

  1. Your technology team will not push themselves to deliver something they don’t think their leader believes in; and
  2. Other department heads and executives will think you aren’t a team player and either work around you or engineer your replacement.

The first point relates to a fairly standard management idea: people work for people, not companies. Your team will probably have more loyalty to you personally than they do for the company in the abstract sense. If they don’t think your heart is really in it, then their efforts will be equally half-hearted.

The second point is a little bit more uncomfortable as it relates to the type of low office-politics that we’d prefer didn’t exist. As the gatekeeper to your company’s software-delivery capacity, you are in the unfortunate position of often having to say, ‘No, we haven’t got enough resources to do that’ which can lead to accusations of under-performance or not driving your team hard enough. If you’re seen as not really being behind the company’s core idea, it becomes easy for others to argue that the technology team isn’t delivering enough due to your unenthusiastic leadership.

It’s worth clarifying at this stage that we’re only talking about belief in your company’s fundamental idea and business model. It is absolutely not the case that you should be an unquestioning cheerleader for every feature that is dreamt up. If you are sceptical about the usefulness of a feature or your team’s ability to deliver it, it is your responsibility to speak up. But those conversations should happen in private, between you and the other heads of department. Once you agree that something is worth delivering, you must give it your full public support (and that includes in the pub after work).

So, how do you make yourself come across as a true believer if you actually have doubts? You can’t.

Even if the rest of your company doesn’t expect total honesty and integrity, your technology team does. Another of those IT professional stereotypes: we can’t stand a fake and are always on the lookout for being hoodwinked. Pretend enthusiasm isn’t going to work.

Fortunately, there is no need to pretend — there are far more startups and ideas out there than there are qualified people to deliver them. If you are offered the position of CTO for a company whose idea you are unsure about, do not take the job. Instead, find a company whose idea you love and that you really want to be involved in making it real.

Ben Halstead is a consultant CTO and writing as a contributor for CTO Craft.

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