The Role of a CTO in a Startup. Mission, Responsibilities, and Skills

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The CTO is a relatively new role in the business world. While many people know that the abbreviation stands for a chief technical officer, many confusions around this title still exist. What does this person actually do? What background and knowledge must he or she have? What is the role of a CTO in a tech startup?

To answer all these questions, we’ll explain what global mission most CTOs perform and outline their key areas of focus in a startup’s day-to-day activity.

What is a CTO?

Nowadays, innovations are the main driving force behind the growth of any business. That’s why the way a tech startup adopts and handles technologies defines if it’ll succeed or not in the end. From this standpoint, it becomes clear that the CTO’s mission is not limited to doing some coding work — it’s much broader. Basically, a CTO is a person who ensures that the implementation of a business strategy that startup founders developed is properly supported with the right software.

What does this mean in practice? Well, there is no exhaustive list of CTO’s duties as they depend on many factors. For instance, the routine tasks which a chief tech officer is in charge of are usually different at different stages of a startup’s business life cycle. The size of a particular organization, its main activities, and available financial resources also have a great impact. So you can hardly find two similar chief technologist job descriptions.

Most common CTO's responsibilities

cto

Although the position title includes the word ‘technology’, the role of CTO is quite diverse. Besides engineering work, it often involves management, human resources, marketing, and many other tasks. So, let’s look at the scope of CTO roles and responsibilities startups usually expect from a person in this position.

Creating a technical strategy

When a tech startup is at its early stage of development, the whole team usually participates in brainstorming and building a strategy. However, it’s a CTO who has the final word on all aspects related to the technical side of the ideas. One of the CTO responsibilities is to validate the feasibility of creating envisioned solutions considering the current state of technological progress. In addition, a chief technology officer suggests software products that need to be developed so that a startup can meet its business objectives.

Building an MVP

In mature enterprises, responsibilities of a CTO rarely includes a requirement to be a hands-on programmer. But the situation is the opposite for tech startups. Even if there are some hired developers, a chief technologist is expected to code along with them. As a person responsible for the minimum viable product (MVP) production, a CTO may design a product architecture, select a technology stack, suggest third-party services, and test the solution. Ultimately, most of these tasks are delegated to other dedicated professionals. Yet, the CTO’s role assumes wearing all the hats at the very beginning.

Product development

To remain relevant and bring real value to customers, software solutions must be constantly upgraded. A CTO is responsible for keeping an eye out for emerging technologies, looking for opportunities to improve the product, and building a plan for new releases. On top of that, a chief technologist leads product development and manages relationships with external tech providers. Specifically, he or she keeps track of their updates, changes to API, policy amendments, etc.

Team management

Hiring engineers and ensuring their retention is probably one of the most time-consuming tasks a CTO must perform. In most cases, it’s quite a challenge to find top talent for a tech startup because of the constraints related to the budget. In addition, a perfect candidate must be a generalist, while many programmers want to specialize in a specific technology. That’s why a chief technologist should have great interpersonal skills to attract tech employees, manage team growth, and encourage specialized people to stay with the company as long as possible.

Customer relationships

Although a CTO may not be directly responsible for the marketing issues and don’t themselves sell the product, they actively take part in both processes. For instance, a chief technical officer might be the only person in a startup team who can properly explain the benefits of a product from a technological standpoint. He or she also answers all customers’ questions about security and compliance, addresses their complaints related to the product performance, and overall establishes a tech vision of a product.

The ideal CTO profile

The specific skills and knowledge a startup CTO must possess depend on the needs of a particular startup. But, in general, a person should meet the following requirements to effectively perform the tasks assigned to this position:

Background in software development

Startup CTOs usually don’t have large teams of programmers with a wide range of tech skills who can advise them on different tech-related topics and deal with issues in specific tech domains. In some cases, a CTO is the only tech-savvy person in a startup, so they must possess good knowledge in all aspects of software development, from writing specifications to quality assurance. That’s why this requirement often assumes some experience as a tech lead and/or software architect.

Strategic thinking

A CTO must be able to see the big picture to achieve a product-market fit and meet the ever-evolving startup needs. Unlike mature businesses, startups develop at an extremely fast pace. It means that a CTO, as one of the startup leaders, has to plan in what direction the business will be moving, anticipate its tech needs at different stages, and consider product scalability a top priority.

Project management skills

A startup CTO as a member of a C-suite often does a lot of managerial work. It includes not only the management of a startup team but also cooperation with freelancers, external partners, vendors, etc. The main challenge is to make all these parties work effectively together so they ultimately can complete the project successfully. Given all the constraints (e.g., remote work, budget limitations, absence of established processes), this task is rarely easy and always requires strong project management skills.

People skills

The position of a chief technology officer assumes frequent interactions with different audiences, including an internal team that a CTO manages and clients. That’s why a good CTO needs to have strong communication skills. It’s also vital for people in this position to be able to recognize, acquire, and retain talented programmers since sourcing skillful team members is quite a common hurdle that a CTO must overcome. To deal with this task, they should always keep a balance between being demanding and being professionally friendly.

Ability to mentor others

Startups usually create innovative products, so CTOs should be able to properly convey a product vision to other developers. What’s more, the amounts of money startups are ready to pay to their team members are often lower than average in the tech market. That’s why CTOs must be able to teach junior specialists and get them up-to-speed on startup tech tasks.

Willingness to learn constantly

Besides teaching others, startup CTO must be able to always learn new things themselves. Since technologies are evolving at a rapid pace, a good startup chief technology officer must be thirsty for new knowledge. A person in this position needs to keep their fingers on the pulse of innovations in general and tech trends in the specific industry a startup is targeted at.

Wrapping-up

In today’s world, a startup cannot succeed without a team member who is specifically responsible for the technological support of all the business goals and ideas. A CTO is not just a good coder who can create the first version of a product. It’s a visionary leader who is able to think out of the box, inspire other people, and resolve challenges. But finding a person who can actually handle all CTO responsibilities startups need them to handle is never an easy task. So, alternatively, startup founders can establish cooperation with a reliable IT outsourcing team that will take up all of the CTO’s responsibilities.

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