The Startup CTO

December 18th, 2010

The CTO title seems to have been born during the 1980’s and then really solidified during the 1990’s boom of technology companies. Since then, its definition and application have been widely used and discussed. Roger Smith (“5 Patterns of the Chief Technology Officer”, 2007) describes the types of CTO roles as:

  • Genius

    • Personally involved in the creation of new technology and its application to company products and services. Uses personal technical talent to direct and motivate the technical staff.

  • Administrator

    • Guardian or watchdog over the organization’s selection and use of vendor technologies. Expertise with technologies is used to accurately evaluate vendor proposals and claims for their products.

  • Director

    • Manager of corporate research projects and investments. Handles the business aspects of a portfolio of different technologies that the company is pursuing.

  • Executive

    • Strategic leader working with company executives to identify important technical trends in the future and how these will impact the company and the industry.

  • Advocate

    • Focused on the applications of technology to improve the experience of the customer. Leverage technology to create a competitive advantage for the company through its relationship with customers.

  • Void

    • Companies that could benefit from a technology leader, but who do not understand how such a position could be applied.

and Tom Berray (“The Role of the CTO: Four Models for Success”, 2002) described Four Models for Success as a CTO:

  • Infrastructure Manager

    • Oversees technology strategy, executive-level relationships, budgeting, and the fusion of IT and business processes.

  • Big Thinker

    • Evaluates how technology can be used by the business, including advanced technology, competitive analysis, technology assessment, partnering, planning and architecture standards.

  • Technology Visionary and Operations Manager

    • Determines how technology can be used to implement the business strategy and then actually integrates and runs the technology.

  • External-facing Technologist

    • Focuses on using technology to provide better products and services to external customers.

But startups are a little different and I think that the CTO hires there really fall into one of three categories:

The Hacker/Developer/Co-founder

  • Maybe this person has the original idea or is a friend of one of the other co-founders. However, this person has good technical skills and is a seasoned developer. In a previous post ( I’ve outlined some of the potential risks as I think there are several other skills needed as I think that the development team needs to be well rounded. In addition, as the team and company grows this person may not have the technology management, project management or visionary skills necessary in an expanded role.

The Specialist/Genius/PhD

  • Many startups are founded and based upon extremely unique and proprietary technology. In this case the CTO is the person who provides this deep and proprietary technology along with the vision of where and how to apply it. However, in this case there is usually a requirement to have support for the CTO, usually something like a VP of Engineering to ensure that the vision is implemented and executed.

The Generalist/All-arounder

  • This is a person with a good balance of all of the skills needed to implement and manage technology within the startup and falls under Berray’s ‘Technology Visionary and Operations Manager’ model. Essentially, this person has a strong technology vision plus the practical ability and experience to design, build and run the technology while managing an organization. I’ll also add that this person should have the capability to perform the position as the organization grows, meaning this person has the same growth potential.

So, whatever the title, it’s extremely important for the high-tech startup to thoroughly understand the expectations for that role, the possible shortcomings and strengths of people who could fill it and then attempt to find someone who would be a great fit with the potential to grow with the company.