Episode 28: How To Be a Great CTO

What does it take to be a good CTO?

What does it take to be a good CTO? It's important for every organization to understand what it means to be a good technology leader. Whether you are the CIO, CTO, CSO, or CDO, you own the technology at your company. In this episode, Andrew and Fahad are diving into what it means to be a great CTO, misconceptions in the industry, and sharing more helpful information on how to best work with CTOs in your organization.

CTOs own technology at their companies

It's important for every organization to understand what it means to be a good technology leader. It's not uncommon to have a CIO and a CTO in the organization. It all depends on what you value and how your organization is structured.

CTOs own technology at his/her company. Technology systems help operate the core of the business, the roadmap and/or vision for technology products, and the way the company operates internally.

More companies are now utilizing the role of a CTO, even small businesses and startups. Every business in 2019 is a digital/technology business. You can't avoid it. If you aren't using software in 2019, then you won't be in business in 2020 or 2021. When businesses adapt to technology, they need leaders who can execute the vision roadmap.

Misconceptions of a CTO

A CTO is the CTO for everyone, not just IT.  It's about understanding how the business operates as a whole. You have to understand how marketing, sales, HR, and the core business works together so that you are able to deploy an effective technology strategy. It's less about technology and more about people.

It's also about bridging the gap between technology and business. You're there to help explain technology in an understandable way for people to understand what technology can do.

Last, CTOs have to understand that they own business enablement. In 2019 business enablement is technology. CTOs own how and why business is deployed and how it integrates within the business as a whole.

Going from Developer to CTO

  • To start developing yourself to become an effective technology leader, start building up a base of business knowledge as well as technical knowledge.
  • A CTO of a product company has to work alongside the CEO, so you need to be a good listener. You need to be able to listen and comprehend their vision and what they want to build, and be able to translate that to technical speak your team can understand.
  • Be ambitious and try to lead projects. If you're ambitious and have an urge to lead, then you'll work your way up quickly. Technology moves so fast.

Keeping up with the pace of Technology

  • It's important to keep up with and tinker with new projects all the time. You can't be a good decision maker without immersing yourself in the underlying technology. It's harder to immerse yourself in a field you don't understand. You have to keep working at it and practicing.

Do start-ups need to hire a CTO?

  • Because everyone has different skill sets, there is a spectrum. It's rare to find someone who is highly relational and deeply technical.
  • Oftentimes, you have someone on the team who is deeply technical and another team leader who is deeply relational driving the bigger vision.
  • Early start-ups you see a CTO who manages 5-6 people. As the company grows, they typically bring in another VP to manage people. It's not uncommon to see this pattern.

Balancing Engineering and Product

  • You know you have a balanced project when engineering didn't win too much. If engineering wins too much, there are no features that ship. If product wins too much, you're heavy on technical debt and it's hard to make changes.
  • When building a balanced organization, where you serve the needs of your customers, you have to make sure engineering can stay up to date is important. It's a balancing act where you're shipping value for your customers and engineering is shipping scalable features for your customers.
  • When you quantify value, it's important to look at the technology gains. The CTO should be balancing engineering and product at all times.

Managing Technical Debt

  • People approach Technical Debt as doom and gloom. Every company has technical debt. The key is to always tie it back to business value. If we don't fix our debt, you're going to get less business value over time.
  • As long as you can tie it back and put it in relatable terms, people can understand it and prioritize it. Don't try to communicate the debt in technical terms, people don't understand it and CTOs aren't heard. Communicate actuals, what it is and how we can fix it, people respond better.

CTOs in Non-Tech/Non-Software Companies

  • First things first, be a CTO to everyone like we discussed above. You have to understand that technology will never be a priority unless people's jobs will be transformed because of it.
  • You can help educate people. Most people understand technology enough to use it, CTOs need to help educate and build that ambitious technology that moves the needle in non-technology firms.
  • Non-software companies shouldn't try to do these grand technology efforts, but start out with bite-size POCs, moving incrementally forward.
  • "Switch" by Chip Heath

How executive level members should work with CTOs

  • CFOs, understand that technology is expensive. Help build a budget for technology. Help them see how they can spread out the efficiency gains over time. Technology is an investment, not an immediate gain.
  • CEOs have to understand that while you're setting the vision, you have to be meticulous in the details. Most CTOs are engineers and are detail-oriented. Use the same words to communicate — Domain-Specific Language (DSL) All executives are speaking the same language. You can communicate the vision in terms everyone understands. Speaking the same language moves the needle in a big way.
  • We're not in an old industry. There's a lot to learn and do. It's going to be expensive. CEOs and CFOs need to be prepared to incorporate new technology.

Admirable and Respectable CTO Traits

  • Passion for technology leads you to understand new technologies
  • Unafraid to bring in new technology
  • Immersive leader - someone who continues to learn no matter how many people he/she manages
  • Methodical management over your team

Being a great technology leader doesn't mean that you have to have Chief in your title or lead a massive team of people to victory. Being a technology leader is someone is passionate about technology, shows up to work every day, and showing people what technology can do. Great CTOs make people passionate about technology. They build technology warriors. Anyone can be a thought leader if they are willing to take a risk and immerse themselves. Don't hold back. Technology and innovation is everyone's responsibility. Innovation starts by everyones interest in creating a better environment. Get people excited about technology and you're going to win!

Build Thoughtful Software
Fahad Shoukat
Written by

Fahad Shoukat

Fahad has a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA. He brings over 15+ years in Business Development, Strategy, Sales, Product, and Marketing in various industries such as software development and Internet of Things (IoT). His experiences have led him on an unwavering pursuit to meet thoughtful people and build thoughtful software.