Most developers, sooner or later, think they are good enough at their job to aspire to a higher career level. The most common goal is to become CTO (Chief Technical Officer).
There is almost a ‘standard’ path to becoming the CTO of an ICT company. An aspiring CTO should first complete studies in both technical and managerial fields.
It might seem like the best way forward would be to develop a deep knowledge of computer science – if the goal is to be a Chief Technology Officer, the main issue is surely technology.
That achieved, the next apparently-obvious step would be to take an intensive master’s course in business administration, but perhaps that’s not the case.
An alternative path could be taking a full bachelor’s degree in managing companies, so that management is your main foundation, and perhaps practicing coding as a hobby. Then you might deepen your education with an ICT-related graduate programme.
Those who are already developers would probably choose the first path. Being a good developer yourself might be enough of a base from which to guide other developers, but a CTO needs a much wider vision.
Without a strong understanding of business administration, it will be difficult to make the leap. Knowledge can always be acquired ‘on the fly’, but a formal education helps so much.
People skills and methods are essential for a CTO
Management and ICT are described above as the required skills to become a CTO, but there is a third branch of skills and methods to consider – competencies that are normally referred to as soft skills. Hard skills include a sound foundation in ICT, management techniques, and analytical reasoning, among others.
A shortlist of the soft skills can better help you understand what is relevant to any ‘C’ position including creativity, persuasion, and collaboration. Calling these skills ‘soft’ diminishes their apparent importance, which can lead an aspiring future CTO down a cul de sac. Cate Lawrence suggests that these skills and methods should instead be included in a broader category of essential skills, as discussed in the article linked to above.
So, the starting point in this career move is being a developer. But what kind of developer are you?
The three developer types
It’s also worth considering things from a perspective other than education. There are many categories of developer, some of which are more likely than others to lead to the desired CTO role.
Here is an exercise to try: search the Internet for a taxonomy of programmer types, and see how much of yourself you recognize in each of the suggested categories. It may be even better to ask your friends and colleagues which category they think you belong to.
Kari McMahon offers a nice characterization of three different developer types in a post dated 2018:
“I don’t like programming, but I work as a programmer”
McMahon’s taxonomy splits the developer population into three types: the get-it-dones, the techies, and the I-don’t-wants. Let’s see what defines these types, and which is best suited to becoming a CTO.
- The Techy developer is sensitive to society’s expectations, adores programming, and lives for technical detail.
- The Get-it-done dev is a problem solver: this type is persistent and goal-oriented.
- As the title of the post suggests, there is a third type – the I-don’t-think-I-want-to-be-a-developer. This is someone interested in tech, but who doesn’t enjoys programming, and is not a natural problem solver.
Let’s take a closer look at these three developer types, and how they relate within an organization
- The Get-it-done developer will probably never become a CTO unless they found their own company. This developer focuses on solutions more than on communication skills, so they will probably be too useful to promote to high-level jobs, and may also lack support from their colleagues and/or bosses.
- The I-don’t-think-I-want-to-be-a-developer probably found it easy to write low-level code that was good enough to provide a basic income. This developer is likely to give up after just a short time, when life’s expenses outstrip their earning potential.
- This third kind of coder will probably never even dream of being a CTO. Both other types may aspire to be promoted at least to Technical Lead, but with different likelihoods of success.
The natural-born CTO is the first type, the Techy developer
This type is very sensitive to non-business issues and also gives serious attention to the details of business matters. As a developer, the Techy is usually complemented in their job by their Get-it-done colleagues: the two types have different vocabulary and behaviors, but can fill in each other’s gaps and cooperate without competing.
The Techy developer has a higher level of natural communicating skills than other programmers. Their interest in programming is often just due diligence before upgrading to a higher level.
What is a CTO?
What does arriving at the destination point on the career path designed above mean? A CTO is a C-level executive with specific job responsibilities, who also interacts with all the other stakeholders in a business.
A CTO has extensive knowledge of ICT, information technology, technology infrastructure, product development and other technologies, a finely-honed sensitivity to the human aspects of managing development teams and process deployment, and deep comprehension of all aspects of respecting business goals.
A CTO must be accountable for their actions – to their team, all C-levels, and the customer base. The CTO is able to manage disruption in an area directly related to the company’s core business, so their plans need to be flexible enough to adapt to any change that should occur during any of the various steps of a digital transformation.
A CTO should also consider contingency plans for unpredictable scenarios. The role of CTO evolves constantly.
As the ‘glue’ that holds a company together, a CTO is the C-level executive most likely to eventually become a CEO. This step is not an automatic progression, but is frequently a bonus to choosing this career path.
The shortest path to becoming a CTO
Assume that you are currently a Technical Lead in your company. Your ICT knowledge and soft skills make you a good choice to take the next step in your career. You are improving your business and social competencies in your spare time, and your goal is to become a CTO in a shorter time than is usual.
You feel ready for a promotion? You have three choices: start your own business, seek out promotion, or hire your knowledge out as a consultant.
1. Start a brand-new company from scratch
The shortest possible path is to be the boss and choose yourself as the CTO. This means founding a company, probably with some partners – there is no need for these to be friends of long standing – and building everything from scratch.
This company can be either a small business or a start-up: in either case, it will be necessary to finance your activity with money from various sources, which may include your own resources, those of your founding partners, money from founders’ friends and relatives, public grants (local, nationwide, or global), prizes, crowdfunding, and venture capital.
Obviously a start-up can be run by an inexperienced management team, but let’s assume this is not the case here, with a founder who started their career as a developer.
Other possibilities might include buying an existing company, choosing a business with a structure and staff that closely resemble what you would choose to build. This choice does usually require having a huge amount of money available to invest, which is rare among young developers.
If you choose the fast track, there is the ‘one-million’ downside to consider: one million things to do all at once, one million new responsibilities. That’s the choice you are making, certainly, but not everybody can handle all of this from the start.
Be prepared to fail without fear: you’ll inevitably miss the goal more than once in the course of your career.
2. Being promoted
There are many roles in the big developer families. Assuming you are good enough, investigate how to be promoted to Technical Lead. While perfecting and updating your computing skills, study business management (focus on your company’s business) and improve your communication skills within the company and software communities, as well as online (social networks).
It’s not easy to do all of this at the same time, particularly if you also have a private life to maintain, but if you want to become the boss…
Any advancement in your career can occur either inside your current company or by joining a different company. This is one reason for spending plenty of time on the main specialized social networks and at community events.
These are the best places to gain new insights and points of view – and to let people know who you are, just in case they need you.
In the meantime, as a very good developer, continue to take care of projects within your current company, which will save both time and money when you become Technical Lead.
However, Technical Lead is an intermediate step, not an arrival point. The goal is to be a CTO, so find opportunities to demonstrate your technical mastery and communication skills to your superiors.
Then, all that is left to do is to watch and wait for an opportunity to turn your goal into your reality. Or perhaps not…
3. Combine short-term experiences
From time to time, company managements display a tendency to look outside the company for a temporary source of technical expertise. Outsourcing has always been an option, and now this paradigm is applied to technology.
This trend has become known as “CTO as a service“, or CTOaaS, a name taken from marketing terminology for cloud services. The term covers basic business requests from companies whose core business is not in ICT: using CTOaaS, they can simply buy consultancy, avoiding adding one more C-level executive to the board of directors.
In Europe, GPRS-related positions display a similar trend; although most involved are primarily legal consultants, many – if not all- have a good knowledge of ICT and previous experience with digital technologies.
This option offers two ways in which an individual can profit: directly, as a consultant, or indirectly, through a company. Both choices provide good CTO experience.
Many consulting companies now offer this kind of service, in many regions of the world. A simple Internet search will create a long list of companies that provide this service as well as other possibilities (including financing).
Such companies operate not only in English-speaking environments – here, for instance, is an opportunity for a French speaker – and are likely to hire Technical Leads or CTOs from small businesses. This sort of work can be a good opportunity to gain valuable expertise that will help you to become a fully-fledged CTO in a short time.
While working for companies like this, step-up your online social activity and time spent in tech communities. Give presentations about what you are studying or working on, and consider publishing your content on a guru or tech blog. You might even find starting a newsletter useful for your career.
Against all odds
Experience wins against all odds, especially in uncertain times. The traditional educational path can prove overly one-dimensional for today’s challenges, and too rigid to allow for agility in decision making.
This doesn’t mean that less knowledge and experience is needed, but that being a suitable CTO requires studying for shorter periods and in less structured ways.
Today’s CTO needs to be prepared to face many challenges that older colleagues may not have encountered in their CTO positions. The time is now, so speed up and keep up with the pace!