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What makes a good “startup CTO”?

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Here are some useful tips on hiring the right person to be your startup's CTO.

Given my software engineering / data analytics background and experience as a startup CTO, I often get asked by non-technical friends (and friends of friends) about what to look for when hiring a CTO for their ventures. I use a few rules of thumb to determine if a candidate would make a good “startup CTO”. (Note: I assume the founder is a non-developer.)

Before you start evaluating candidates, ask yourself, “do I actually need to hire a CTO right now?” It is easy to fall into the trap of building a C-suite before your company even gets off the ground. A CTO’s job is to manage growth by leading a cohesive development team, deploying robust/scalable infrastructure, and laying out project roadmaps. If your startup hasn’t found a product/market fit with MVPs, you cannot know what will be needed operationally and consequently the CTO has nothing to build up. You should only consider bringing on a CTO after you’ve achieved product/market fit and laid the foundation for growth.

If you have this foundation in place and need to start scaling up the business, then hiring a CTO probably makes sense. Here are some important characteristics of a “startup CTO” that you should keep in mind while hiring:

  1. Business Development Experience: a great coder without business sense does not a CTO make. A software engineer implements products based on the specs he’s given; the CTO decides which products to prioritize and how they’re ultimately built. It’s important that your CTO understands how to build products, but it’s imperative that she understands why to build them. Seeing the bigger picture anticipates problems, prepares for necessary changes, and guides development away from rabbit holes and towards products that best suit the business. The CTO is the company’s technical eyes and ears; you don’t want to be driving by braille.
  2. Startup Experience: a startup’s CTO has very different objectives than one at an established company. Hire a CTO with startup experience and an entrepreneurial spirit because she’ll be building the company’s architecture from the ground up rather than babysitting an entrenched system.
  3. Relentless, Resourceful Problem Solver: a good CTO will not shy away from difficult problems and will work tenaciously to solve them or improve existing solutions. Oftentimes this means thinking outside the box and crafting solutions that have never been done before.
  4. Leadership Ability: the CTO’s primary function is leading the development team, not sitting at a terminal coding all day. It is essential to hire someone with the communication skills necessary to translate high-level product strategy into an actionable development roadmap that the engineers can follow. This also entail knowing when to delegate and when to dig into the development weeds herself.

If you keep these few things in mind and envision a good CTO as a conductor rather than a first violin, you won’t go far wrong.

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