Looking at the life of the CTO through the stages

Originally published 23 August 2017 and updated on 12 March 2024

The role of Chief Technology Officer, like the good cliche, is a journey. Evolving as a business grows, adaptability is key when the focus and skills of the role change at each stage. The position of the CTO has been labelled the Genius, the Administrator, the Director, the Executive, and the Advocate. The role of duality calls for an operational executive who can make important strategic decisions that impact the company’s competitive position.

At all points, however, there must be an understanding that a CTO acts as the translation layer between technology and business, and the primary job (without which there would be nothing!) is to make sure the company’s technology strategy serves its business strategy. 

Phase Zero — Ideas Factory

When entrepreneurs (technical or otherwise) come together to brainstorm and evaluate business propositions and product features, the CTO is responsible for validating the technical feasibility and suggesting likely technical platforms and build-buy options for the ideas.

Before a business becomes a business, it’s just a set of ideas — some good, some not so good… When entrepreneurs (technical or otherwise) come together to brainstorm and evaluate business propositions and product features, the CTO is responsible for validating the technical feasibility and suggesting likely technical platforms and build-buy options for the ideas.

Phase One — Early-Stage Startup

In its formative phase, a startup is ‘a temporary organisation used to search for a repeatable and scalable business model’ (Steve Blank). Taking the all-hands-on-deck approach, the CTO is responsible for creating a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) that can be developed and iterated quickly to gain real-time user feedback.

The role requires an experienced developer, someone who can build at speed using agile software development practices and who will attract other talented developers to the company. While being development-focused, the CTO also needs to be inventive and experimental. With the try, try, try again adage in mind, it is someone who is a natural problem-solver and willing to push boundaries to make the product work.

Phase Two — Stabilisation

Once a business has found the right product-market fit, the CTO’s focus turns to reworking the MVP and software craftsmanship. In particular, the CTO should make the code easier to iterate onward, ensure the product’s hosting infrastructure is scalable and well-monitored, and ensure that the product itself can be built and deployed easily. At this stage, the CTO may also direct his/her attention to quality assurance and formulate a continuous integration pipeline to ensure ease of product release.

During the stabilisation process, the development team grows, and so the CTO role takes on a more managerial bent, focusing more on culture, process, hiring and leading others. Finding and bringing on engineering talent is one of the hardest things tech startups have to do, and making the wrong decision is costly in terms of both time and resources. The CTO needs to be aware of market movement, but also see that any placement they make is a good fit for the product, person and the company as a whole.

Phase Three — Growth

The product is stable and simple to iterate — great! Now what? The top-level business objectives are to grow and expand while introducing new products and features. A collaborative effort between the CTO and the Product Manager or Head of Product, a product roadmap to look at how the product is likely to grow, align the stakeholders, and budget (allocation and fundraising) for development.

The percentage of which a CTO has been managing versus engineering seismically shifts towards the former and he/she will be required to direct as the role becomes more about leadership and process. As a step is taken back from active development, recruiting a VP of Engineering to oversee day-to-day delivery may be necessary.

To enable the development team to work across many product lines in tandem, the CTO must divide them into separate cross-functional product teams, each with a team lead, and drive a set of agile or lean processes to enable them to work independently and self-sufficiently.

Phase 4 — Domination

With several distinct product teams containing multiple disciplines, the CTO must focus on building leadership for front- and back-end engineering, testing, UX, product management, infrastructure and delivery. Reporting directly to the CTO, the designated technical leaders will be provided with objectives for deploying best practices, team growth, development and training and external relations.

As a CTO’s journey goes from the initial stages of survival, through road-testing, to making allies and enemies during team formulation, there’ll be a sense of accomplishment at its near-peak when the path has been well-travelled and everything comes together.

Then, a CTO’s focus turns to a more global vision and strategy—continued product research and monitoring of trends will ensure that the business’s competitive advantage is retained through the use of technology.

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