Remain focused on your career path
If you want to be prepared to make the right decisions at the right time for your career path it’s vital that you comprehend your own wants and needs, as well as all the options in front of you. Make sure you subscribe to our newsletter to keep reading our developer career-focused content as it is published!
Becoming a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) is an arrival point on many career paths. Taking that role on for a 20+ company (or larger!) is obviously more challenging than starting from scratch in a start-up, but the basics don’t change: a CTO is always the link between technology, business, and teams.
It is particularly interesting to recap the set of critical hard and soft skills for a first-time CTO, both in what has to be done and what doesn’t need to be.
Clarify the requirements of your CTO role
It’s hard to say what the very first task a new CTO should tackle is. The CEO and customer‘s needs are priorities for you, and you can’t overlook the developer team.
One of the most frequent pieces of advice is to clarify the requirements and the CTO’s role description with your peers in your own words.
In order to do this, you need a four-step approach.
- Every company needs a different CTO. You should make your own personal list first, then;
- Ask your peers directly what they expect from you, and make a second list;
- Combine list 1 and 2 to get the final list of your duties and responsibilities as a CTO;
- Read the final list to all of your peers.
Set up a meeting to deal with point number four. Ask your peers clarifying questions and note down their answers, then read your final notes to them. Later, when you are on your own, write up the final points in a way that will be easy for you to read.
Once you have this list clear in your mind, set up a second meeting to recap and collect your peers’ final remarks. Here, make sure to separate out the useful additional points from the superfluous ones, or you risk ending up with an endless list.
If your CEO is the only member of the board, simply speak to the CEO and ask what the company’s business objectives are: you have to understand and share his vision of targets, resources, and objectives.
Make sure you also meet the CFO periodically. This is the person who measures results, so planning the forthcoming three months together is a good practice.
Whether you are presented with many goals or only one, talking to your peers is an important part of your new role. You should set up regular report meetings with all of them – you can also decide to break it down into smaller, or one-to-one, meetings.
Inspire and learn from your team
Teamwork is the foundation of every startup. Nobody will tell you this, but team management is one of a CTO’s unwritten responsibilities.
Put effort into understanding the decisions and motivations of the people or teams directly relevant to your responsibilities. Think of them as a developing team.
You might start by reviewing your employees’ CVs. Check what experience and skills they say they have, verify these claims and figure out where they may have over- or underrated themselves, where they need to improve or update, and what is really relevant to the company‘s goals. Your team must always match the company‘s needs.
Satisfaction is the keyword to achieve this goal. Your team members should work well individually, be paid appropriately, and interact well with each other. Look at these points closely, talk to people, and keep an eye on the results they produce in their assigned projects.
You have to manage your team, not micro-manage them; respect their way of dealing with technical and personal problems, and be aware of their strengths and weaknesses.
Don’t compete with them: if your career path previously had you in a role lower in the hierarchy, leave that behind and become a fully-fledged manager. This is particularly important if you were a software developer – step away from this role completely, and never code against your employees.
Control workflow and information flow
The ‘five W’s’ make communication clear, and are a fundamental requirement if you want to ensure all company members are pushing in the same direction. The ‘five W’s’ are: What, Why, Where, hoW, and When.
Ignoring how your company describes its goals in terms of these five golden points, or not staying up to date with these key point can create many problems for a company : programming mistakes, unproductive meetings, inaccurate customer communications, and many other issues.
The way to avoid this issue is communication. Firstly, teams (developers, marketing, sales, etc) should regularly report to management; secondly, the management team should organize meetings that involve a broader spectrum of stakeholders, some of which should include a final Q&A session.
It is more difficult to master these flows when your company is a small start-up. Many people believe that everybody knows everything when working in a small group, but this is often untrue. There is a need for explicit information control in small companies too.
A C-level manager needs to manage people in a diplomatic way. Addressing issues too directly can cause conflict. Let’s take a common example:
Suppose you see a problem with timing. The direct question would be “Will you meet the deadline?”. This could be taken a direct attack, so consider adopting another, less direct alternative, such as “I like your idea, but pay attention to the deadline” or making a making use of a concerned facial expression without saying anything.
On the other hand, in situations where you really need to say that something won’t work, you have to be clear and straightforward in your communication. Be ready to mediate or delay in case a conflict arises, but be direct.
Stay up-to-date ontechnology and business
Technology, business, and collaboration are the bread and butter of every CTO. ICT may be one of several, or the primary technology; business management can come from formal education or an on-the-job learning approach; communication may be mostly with the other C-level executives, with your teams or within the scope of community-related social media and events, but even an average CTO must be good at all of these things at the same time.
Never underestimate the importance of business theory – it’s where a CTO most often falls down, and this can be career ending.
Speaking of underestimation, but thinking now of technology, the importance of cyber protection cannot be emphasised enough. It is an absolute essential if you want to build a rock-solid business.
Cyber Security is the best insurance to protect your future, and this is true not only within the ICT business but for every business; the digital paradigm is your most important infrastructure.
The role of a CTO is to stay up-to-date themselves, and to update the whole company on these subjects. Consider this task not as a fixed picture, but as a constantly-running video. Asking the right questions may help:
Are we following the best path for every technology we need? Do we still understand current customers‘ needs? Do I have the appropriate training to pursue this new way of approaching business? Will these considerations be important in the medium-to-long term?
A good choice today could be a failure tomorrow. The vision of a CTO should consider each technology not only from a stand-alone point of view but also from a systemic standpoint.
Innovation should not be feared, but disruption, which never has just one technological victim but usually demands the rethinking of multiple parts of the process, can be a challenge.
Not being ready to rethink processes could be your final mistake, in today’s fast-paced industry.
The ‘don’ts’ often come easier
A final way to summarise the best way forward for a new CTO is to ask a senior CTO. A good way to match what has been said in terms of “do this and this” can be the addition of “don’t do this, nor this either”.
Francis Nappez, CTO and co-founder of the tech-enabled BlaBlaCar company, gave these ‘don’t-based’ answers in an interview in May 2019. Several of his answers really complement this article.
Don’t be rigid about your responsibilities
Your role as a CTO is probably not clearly distinguished from that of a normal contributor if you work in a start-up or small business. A million different tasks, many not part of your theoretical duties may arise at any moment and you have to take care of some of them.
Be aware of the theory, but live in the reality: think like a true CTO – work as needed in your present job, and always be sure that communication is coherent, startspositively and arrives in full.
The larger your company and the higher the degree of organization, the more typically C-level your job is. “You go from being a ‘doer’ to being a ‘leader’, where you have to make decisions and communicate them,” says the CTO of BlaBlaCar. “The team behind the project must understand why they are working on it, what the goal is, and then the rest will come easily.”
Don’t overlook cross-team communication
The role of the CTO is also cross-functional, apart from being the technological leader of the company. If anybody needs to verify that everybody in the company is going in the right direction, that’s the CTO. “You have to make listening to other teams a priority so that you can find out what is important and then see how you can help,” advises Nappez.
This unwritten part of the job usually takes a lot of time.
Don’t reinvent the wheel
This title is remniscent of a common joke dedicated to everyone who thinks they are the only designer in the world. “Tech people have this intense desire to build everything themselves,” says Francis Nappez, but “Sometimes you have to trust other set-ups or services.”
A periodic survey of what other people are doing in your direct field, and in many others, is the only way to be aware of a solution that may already exist for a problem you are facing right now.
Assembling existing modules, or hardware parts, means reaching your goal faster and more cheaply than if you design everything from scratch. Parts may need to be customized or redesigned, but overall management is usually much more effective if you can reuse the previous work of other designers.
This is the clearest explanation of why it is so important to participate in technical events such as meet-ups, conferences, and so on.
Remember: “our goal is to build only what others will not build for us.”
Don’t believe you are building something eternal
“Ceci tuera cela“, or in English “This will kill that” – these are the words Victor Hugo puts in the mouth of Quasimodo in his novel ‘The Hunchback of Nôtre Dame’. At the end of the fifteenth century, Hugo/Quasimodo confronted the old world of cathedrals with the new technology of printed books.
This is a recurring pattern when a new advance takes its place.
“We sometimes believe we are building cathedrals, but life makes everything go so fast, and some creations become obsolete within a few months,” observes Nappez, reflecting that time to market is where you create value for your customer and make money for your company.
Any technological improvement is useless in and of itself without a commensurately large improvement in customer experience; this should be the final goal of every CTO.
Remain focused on your career path
If you want to be prepared to make the right decisions at the right time for your career path it’s vital that you understand your own wants and needs as well as all the options in front of you. Make sure you subscribe to our newsletter to keep reading our developer career-focused content as it gets published!