Six rules of the startup CTO playbook
What is it like being the CTO of a startup? Titles mean zilch in the startup frame of things. You know it’s true. Sometimes roles get so mixed up it’s difficult to figure out what anyone is expected to do. A startup CTO is a large company’s CTO, CIO, and VP of engineering, all rolled into one. And that is an indication of the high degree of responsibility the CTO is expected to shoulder.
Understandably, a CTO’s primary contribution is technology expertise. However, it would be unwise to assume that that’s all she is expected to offer in the grand scheme of things. While the CEO is seen as a true visionary and akin to an idea factory, the CTO is seen as a more pragmatic member of the executive team. Indeed, the CTO’s role is more about execution, towards rendering a realistic view of company vision.
1. Keepin’ It Real
The best CTO isn’t just embroiled in engineering initiatives. He is open to making informed decisions based on the long-term vision of the company. The CTO is required to perform a sort of reality check in understanding things from a business perspective and not solely from a view of adding features to the product. Knowing what can and cannot be done can be a buzz kill sometimes, but someone’s got to do the dirty work and that someone is often the CTO.
2. Behind Every Great CEO Is A Truly Awesome CTO
Every organization has its own set of goals that a CEO finds it difficult to stray from. And it is important to tweak these goals just a little when presented with suitable feedback from customers. A CTO needs to push the CEO to face the customers, to listen to them, and to understand how things need to be changed to suit requirements from a customer standpoint, rather than asking for features based on her whims.
3. Focus On the Process
A good CTO will ensure that there is method to the madness. Very often, there are tons of things to be built in very short periods of time. Staying chaotic all through would be the biggest reason to fail. The CTO will ensure that there are easy-to-follow processes that the team can adhere to, to build the product. The processes must be kept simple and changeable so that they can evolve. Too much process engineering could very well turn into overkill.
4. The End Game Is Redundancy
No one wants to feel redundant, like you don’t matter anymore. But that is what a good CTO should aim for, from the development perspective—it should be such that the CTO could take a month off and development would not be hampered at all.
5. A Good CTO Is A Pretty Nifty Trader
Making wise tradeoffs between extra features and the time on hand is an essential part of the CTO’s job. Do not over-engineer. A good solution is better than the best. A lean, time-efficient strategy will serve a CTO well. Stick to essential features and get things done fast. This is what a good CTO should want. Encouraging the CEO to think likewise and not get carried away with adding non-essential items to the product is also informally a part of the CTO’s job description.
6. Go With the Flow
It is important for the CTO to adapt to new situations and to be flexible in making decisions. A CTO has to make sure the engineering process runs without any glitches, but must not be afraid of changing a feature if that is what is required according to customer feedback.
The CTO could be seen as having a finger in too many pies. But really, the best CTOs know that they need to be on top of everything if they really are to be on top. There is so much more to a CTO than just technology, and it’s time we got around to understanding that.
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Jinesh Parekh is the CEO of a niche Ruby on Rails development boutique, Idyllic Software. Apart from web development, Idyllic Software also builds native Android and iOS applications. You can reach Jinesh at jparekh [at] idyllic-software [dot] com.