The ever-changing role of a startup CTO
Companies in this day are only as successful as their technology. Those that build and change with the times are usually the ones that succeed. And as technology and businesses change, so must the role of the CTO.
As the primary driver of all executive decisions regarding the tech that powers, the CTO’s role is wide; they’re responsible for building and execute against the vision of a company, implementing strategies and ensuring resources are available to achieve business goals.
Making matters more difficult, getting ahead of the competition and continuously innovating becomes even harder as an engineering team grows from zero to fifty-more employees.
In addition to being a member of the executive team and formulating and driving the company and business strategy forward, the role of the CTO typically falls into four buckets of responsibility.
1. Execute a product roadmap
This means strictly executing on the roadmap as promised, on time and keeping key stakeholders informed along the way.
2. Scale engineering team and the technology stack
Scale engineering such that the team is able to execute on the product vision today and for one to two years down the line (while not getting too far ahead of growth and overhiring). This is especially important in a high-growth company. This includes both hiring as well as the development of existing employees to build a strong engineering culture. Scaling technology implies being able to keep up with the needs of the business and its customers, for example, as the traffic to a service or a website grows, the technology should be able to keep up with it
3. Improve execution speed
This involves ensuring the right processes and tools are in place on teams so that they are able to execute with speed and also includes making sure companies are leveraging technology in every aspect of the business to have a competitive advantage.
4. Optimize technology spend
As a customer base grows, so will the costs. The CTO should be to keep a close eye on dollar spend and look for strategic areas where spending can be reduced. An example includes renegotiating cloud provider contracts or changing the way a company handles file storage.
While these four buckets will always be on a CTO’s mind, the priority given to each bucket changes based on the company’s growth.
For a team of 10
When you’re working with a team of 10 people or fewer, a CTO’s main focus should be on executing on the product roadmap. In the early stages of a company, moving fast in the market is super important. Execution is also a No. 1 priority because during this stage it is important that the CTO becomes intimately familiar with the tech stack, the way the team works and the products so as to be able to start thinking about how things might need to evolve in the future.
After execution, the CTO’s No. 2 area of focus should be scaling engineering and tech stack, with an emphasis on scaling engineering. A company’s goal should always be to move fast, and if the engineering team is the bottleneck, a CTO must solve that problem quickly.
For a team of 20
At an organization the size of 20 people, you can expect the presence of at least two to three managers on staff. Because of this, a CTO should be giving a lot more headspace to growing the engineering and technology stack, while relying on the engineering managers to drive the day-to-day execution. As such, executing on the product roadmap would drop secondary to scaling engineering and the technology stack with it.
Scaling the tech stack is not just about making sure you can support the business growth as it relates to website traffic or customers, it’s also about things like ensuring you can onboard engineers at a fast pace or that your build systems scale with the number of developers at the company.
If the next growth step is to scale the engineering organization to 40 people, making key investments here is going to be crucial. During this time, it’s important to ensure the right engineering culture is in place. If not, there is a risk of attrition during rapid hiring and growth stages. Before joining Care/of, at my time with Animoto, I found that implementing engineering team values (in addition to the company values already in place) was a good way to establish a good engineering culture. These values represented the engineering organization and helped establish a strong foundation for a good engineering culture that all of us aligned with. I’m also doing this with Care/of now that we have hit the 20-person engineering team mark.
For a team of 40
At an organization of 40 people, it’s safe to assume that some components of the tech stack are about four to five years old. The company is clearly doing well, but as engineers, we want to make sure that we are beginning to address some of the cracks in the tech foundation.
With this in mind, the CTO should rank scaling engineering & tech stack at No. 1, improving execution speed at No. 2, optimizing spend at No. 3 and product roadmap execution at No. 4. This is no way means execution is less important, but at this stage, there are typically senior managers and directors of engineering that drive the day-to-day execution.
With all of the roles and responsibilities listed, what doesn’t change for a CTO as startups grow is their need to be nimble, quick and focused on ensuring there are plenty of opportunities and support available to innovate across an organization. While immediate obligations will change, we must always be able to innovate and stay ahead of trends.
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