A Chief Technology Officer also must have strong technical expertise, and be able to share it with the company to make sure everyone is up to date. Moreover, they need to have a strategic vision to apply their technical knowledge throughout the company and be ready to implement changes.
A CTO collaborates closely with C-level executives, including the CEO and the CFO, and sometimes is also called upon in matters related to the customer base.
But let’s not forget that they are a technician at the core, so a complete vision of the domain in which they operate is mandatory: a CTO constantly studies and keeps up to date.
As a leader, they must keep motivated while motivating others, set and pursue goals, evaluate all the alternatives and come up with the best strategy, and then supervise the subsequent technical process. And they have to be ready to face crises and failure at any time.
Finally, a CTO should always think out of the box.
Here’s a list of the most important CTO skills, according to the CEOs and CTOs of our community:
- Domain knowledge: contextualize all processes
- Technical CTO skills: build a solid technical foundation
- Long-term vision: include all disruptions
- Decisions are part of CTO skills: move towards objectives
- Regulatory issues: pursue a strong ethic
- Thinking outside the box is a crucial CTO skill
- Flexibility: followability, crisis management, fallibility
Domain knowledge: contextualize all processes
The working point of a CTO’s job is a product, or a service, and process engineering. There is no universal solution, but a set of good solutions to choose from. Being able to choose the best fit for the company is key.
The engineering process requires trade-off strategies to be applied and sometimes formalized. The goal is a solution that works the best in time for the context of the specific product/service, inside the activity domain.
That’s why the starting point of a CTO’s job is domain knowledge: mapping it, it’s possible to contextualize all processes, making decisions and prioritize steps.
Having a deep knowledge of the domain your navigating in allows a CTO to give the correct relevance to the overall plan. Your team needs to work fast, but not always as fast as possible, regardless of everything else. Look at the downstream impact, to other projects currently at work, to the future directions of the company, to possible bottlenecks these processes could face in the short or long term.
Here comes the next turning point of your future as a better CTO. Technical skills and long-term vision are the main activities to master and update if you want to have a strong knowledge of your product/service domain.
Technical CTO skills: build a solid technical foundation
Having a solid technical foundation will remain a critical factor forever. Software is here to stay, and you as a CTO have a sub-goal more important than many others: leave the code better than you found it.
This is a matter of making the most of your personal and team experience. You improve your code evaluating alternatives, making mistakes, and listening to the collective experience of communities. Updating your code is often referred to as “refactoring”. Working on existing code has the same time at least three advantages: improving the domain knowledge, educating who’s in charge, and strengthening your refactoring muscle, in the words of Sihui Huang.
A solid technical foundation requires a long march towards completeness. No matter how many good coders are in your teams, while in the world outside your company there are so many experienced communities that already worked out all possible problems. Your teams can drink from that water only if they bring their own water: participate in communities, let your team members do the same, contribute with free code on Github, or as free APIs.
The good CTO could also be the at the front of what’s going on inside their company. Once considered a geek, today they are a visionary. That’s why a good choice is sharing their thoughts and results on the main social networks: Medium, Linkedin, or an expert/guru blog.
In particular, shall you publish a blog under your name and job, you have to follow some broad directives. Never indulge in code, nor in any detail of implementation; be optimistic and inspired. Talk about your projects, focus on the big picture, ask for suggestions in long-term productivity. Engage with your preferred professionals: don’t wait for them to come to visit you, be you the first mover, follow them, comment on their posts, engage with their followers.
Blogging is a time-consuming activity, drawing resources not only for direct posts, but mainly for reading and commenting on others’ posts, but can place your career in the right spot for your present and future job. You could be known for both your work and your hub position.
Improving technical skills makes us good implementers. Gaining domain knowledge plus technical skills makes you a problem solver. A basic CTO is a problem solver, but a good one is a problem finder. Honing a long-term vision gives you the needed skills to be a problem finder.
Long-term vision: include all disruptions
Having a long-term vision means understanding the future you are moving towards. The definition of “vision” itself has always changed in time, and now it accelerated wildly. Considering all company changes while developing a certain number of versions of your product/service in advance was the correct long term vision until a few years ago. Today, a CTO must be able to project in advance not only his company, or product, but the stakeholders‘ evolution, and at the same time technology’s, and environment’s. The number of interactions and possibilities is very high.
Good knowledge can be found within your own team. The history of the team‘s members, and of the company‘s projects, helps the CTO in evaluating the best performing scenarios.
Decisions are part of CTO skills: move towards objectives
A good manager makes multiple decisions. This kind of approach is often evaluated as negative by some gurus who underline that most problems solve themselves without any intervention. There are indeed some differences between solving and resolving: we don’t need a problem to disappear regardless of the needed time, we want instead to have our happy ending in the time we have to spend on it. It’s not a problem of making snap decisions, but of timely, decisive, and good decisions.
A CTO’s long-term vision is always constrained by time. All possible steps of all viable scenarios must take into account each of the subsequent steps leading to the final result in a strict and consistent time frame.
You can’t be a CTO if you don’t include time in all your plan variants. You can’t consider this only occasionally: for a good CTO, time constraints are a day-by-day concern.
Regulatory issues: pursue a strong ethic
Ethics and legislation are always changing. What is different today is that the various macro-regions -Europe, China, Russia, North America to name the most important ones- follow different approaches that are put in strict contact by globalization.
Most technological companies are today multi-national bodies that can’t avoid the conflict between different regulatory situations. Companies can today have the registered office in one country, the production plant or agreements in another, the sales office in many countries located in different macro-regions, post-sale assistance in one or more countries. This is true not only for large companies but in many cases also for smaller entities: just think of software publishers for apps or app add-ons. And all of them have their own map of regional interests to make their business.
Managing a company in this scattered environment is another challenge a CEO must face. The best approach is having strong overall ethics. A clear map of what’s right and wrong for your customers, employees, and the underlying communities, drives you in while you choose how to follow regional legislation. Every regulatory framework allows you certain degrees of freedom, and the man in charge has to decide when to save, when to sell, when to buy, and when to share, having clear in mind the long time his company wants to stay on the global market.
This is only possible if the global technological vision is balanced by a global ethical vision. In this respect, the CTO has a role in-between other C-level executives and his teams. During difficult times they have to balance their role and their visions, beyond the strict technical field.
Thinking outside the box is a crucial CTO skill
Most technical problems require ingenuity to be solved. Ingenuity means uncommon, unboxed. A catchphrase that best suits ingenuity is “to think outside the box”. It means to find a solution out of the common set of rules. It comes from the nine dots puzzle, where you are required to connect the points in a 3×3 matrix using only four lines while never lifting the pen.
This approach is good for technology, but also to legal, or bureaucratic aspects.
The role of a CTO includes a strong quality: being able to think outside the box, and knowing when it’s best to end or shut something down. They are comfortable with unfamiliarity. They continuously seek to challenge their limits, juggle priorities and a tricky schedule. Challenging conventional wisdom is a good reference for all projects. We are all biased by our limited set of experiences, so we normally hide in conventional wisdom. The good CTO never stops challenging it, nor themself: it’s the only way to see the big picture.
Flexibility: followability, crisis management, fallibility
Flexibility is a great CTO skill to have and improve in time. We know about it in a different synonym, agility, coming from the scrum methodology and the agile approach.
Followability is an uncommon word for an important quality for leadership. A good point to start from is the ability to follow others. Great leaders must be great listeners and must pay attention to everything happening in their teams. In a word, they have to be great followers.
A good leader is capable of delegating to their teams and helping them to grow. It’s only by paying attention to their team that a CTO can know who looks able to manage a sub-task, and their behaviour and response to success or failure.
Crisis management is a critical issue. The need for a leader is stronger during crisis times when having somebody to take decisions, lower anxiety, and helps the team continue with everyday work. Crisis management is maybe the single most important capability of a long-term successful leader. Fortunately, technical people are already experienced in considering contingency plans and disaster recovery for all ICT-related activities.
Your plans need to span from a data breach to an industry-wide downturn, from a natural disaster to an epidemic, so to provide direction and respond in a timely and organized manner.
Fallibility is a philosophical problem. Making mistakes helps to become successful later, as average values affirm. When you are in charge of technologies you work much as a trial and error partner, a process of continuous improvement completely based upon mistakes and failures. A leader is not a manager that is always right, but a person who has the skills to lead.