The Evolution of the CTO

January 16th, 2009

Previously, I discussed that as the role of a CTO changes with the maturation and stabilization of a startup, the skill set and emphasis of the CTO must also change.

In my last post I presented my observation that there are essentially four roles that a CTO has to play during the evolution of a company

* Innovator/Visionary
* Technical Project Manager
* Customer and Business Focused Executive
* Caretaker and Longer-Term Business Planner and Visionary

and discussed some of my thoughts on the roles of Innovator and Project Manager.

In this post, I will present some thoughts on the latter two roles.

Customer and Business Focused Executive

Once a company has achieved a sense of stability and survived the startup phase the company’s management team begins to focus on growing the business. What this means for the CTO is that emphasis begins to shift from quickly building functionality and reacting to changes in demands and making fixes to a longer term horizon. While the first priority will be on ensuring that the customer has an excellent product experience, the CTO now begins to start planning the next version of the product. The CTO will also be able to get a better sense of budgeting, where expenditures can be better tied to expected revenues instead of living off of investment capital. This allows the CTO to balance the team size and skill sets with needs in order to develop a realistic time line and schedule for new product rollout. In addition, the CTO needs to develop a team that is no longer solely focused on product development, but also includes the necessary skills that will provide the support to the organization’s technology needs along with a greater emphasis on customer facing support.

Caretaker and Strategic Business Planner and Visionary

In truly mature organizations, the next evolution is for the CTO to be a strategic visionary. In these instances, where the company is a true technology leader it its market, it is imperative that the organization continue to be a technology leader and/or innovator. Usually, this means that the CTO lead some sort of R&D efforts along with developing the long-term strategy and assist in the development of the long-term product efforts. Technology-based companies cannot rest on their laurels and continue to expect to be a market leader.

However, I also think it is important to point out that there is no reason for the CTO to have all of the ideas and imagination within an organization. It is imperative though that the CTO is the link to help in expressing ideas, lending them credibility, incorporating them into the strategy, assisting in the allocation of resources and in the management of their implementation.

In conclusion, over the past two posts I’ve talked about what I see is the evolution of a startup and the necessary evolution of the skills that the organization’s CTO needs. In the very beginning, a company can survive with an extraordinarily technically proficient individual. That soon changes though as the product development effort moves forward making technical project management and architecture design the most important skills of the CTO. Later, as the product matures, the CTO needs to be more forward looking and customer focused, planning for the next version of the product. Finally, in a mature organization, the CTO needs to lead the efforts to develop a new generation of product that allows the company to maintain it’s technological advantage over competitors.