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Is the CTO title tainted? I think so

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Warning: this is a rant.

What a CTO does varies from company to company. One way in which the role changes dramatically is with the size of the department. When the tech department is:

  • 1 person, the CTO is mostly a developer.
  • 2 to 10 people, the CTO becomes a manager. They stablish what developers do and executes it.
  • 10 to 50, the CTO becomes a manager of managers. They stablish what developers do and what managers do to execute it.
  • Above 50 the role goes from tactical to strategic. At some point one or more VPs appear that and the CTO is purely strategic.

There are other ways in which the CTO may vary from company to company. In some the role is purely internal, in others it’s customer facing, or community facing. That depends on what the company does.

The problem with the CTO role is that the C part of it is not taking seriously

My experience has been managing up to 20 people so I can’t comment on what the industry is like beyond that. I’m pretty sure some of the things I’m going to be ranting about here are not a problem for the CTOs of 100 people or more. That just can’t be true.

The problem with the CTO role is that the C part of it is often not taking seriously. Let’s refresh our memory: it stands for Chief. Like the CEO, COO, CFO, being a CTO puts you in the executive team. Even if you are CTO of 1, that means you have (or should have) the authority and the responsibility to execute. That’s the difference between being a coder in a company of 2 and being a CTO in a company of 2.

An example might help here. Let’s say to develop something needs to be bought: a computer, some software, a development unit of some hardware. Let’s imagine two companies, both which have a CEO but company A has a developer and company B has a CTO.

The CTO present a decision that is in the best interest to the company based on cash position, cashflow, budget, etc.

In company A the coder makes the request to the CEO and the CEO decides. In company B, the CTO would instead look at how much cash is in the bank, what the budget for the next quarter/year looks like, take a quick look at the P&L to make sure everything is marching well, make the decision and buy it. Even if there is still an approval process for the acquisition, the CTO doesn’t blindly make a request to the CEO. The CTO present a decision that is in the best interest to the company based on cash position, cashflow, budget, etc. That means the CTO needs access to that information.

Equally, the CTO has the responsibility to do all that. The CTO leads the technical department, but acts on the best interest of the whole company and failing to do that means failure as a CTO. A CTO cannot hide behind “But that isn’t tech!” as an excuse. The same way that CEOs tend not to take CTOs seriously, and just consider them a cost center that produces code, CTOs tend not to act seriously when they need to step up to the challenge.

I think a lot of this happens because the CTO title is given to technical co-founders and coders that are excited about building something, but not about all the other tasks CTOing imply. I was a bit like that 12 years ago or so when co-founded Watu, but I had to grow quickly to fill in the shoes of the title.

Nowadays when I take the role of CTO, these are the responsibilities I take:

  • Producing the product that is core to the company.
  • Running all the technical infrastructure of the company, this includes what sometimes is referred to as IT.
  • Cybersecurity for the whole company.
  • The personal cybersecurity for the CEO and possibly other members of the executive team. This is an odd one, but I’ve seen how disruptive it can be for a company when the CEO is distracted because their email got hacked.
  • Keeping an eye on cash, cashflow, P&L and making sure my department is aligned. If I have a CFO, that’s great, but I can do it myself if it’s simple enough.
  • Work with the other departments to find how technology can enable them to execute their goals faster. This mean generally assisting customer support, marketing, and sales with technology to increase their efficiency.
  • Business continuity: I might not be as good as my CEO as many of their tasks, but if the CEO can’t perform them for whatever reason and there’s nobody else more qualified than me, I’ll jump, whatever it is: selling, raising money, anything and everything.

[…] what I want to do is go around the company and make it awesome by using tech to enhance the efficiency and efficacy of all departments

My ultimate goal is the success of the company. A good friend of mine has been telling me for years: “You should go for COO roles, that’s why you’ve been doing for years now”. I resisted the idea but I’m started to be onboard. When I join a company as CTO, it’s like I’m told “Go sit in that box and produce code whenever we tell you, try not to make too much noise.” but what I want to do is go around the company and make it awesome by using tech to enhance the efficiency and efficacy of all departments. I want to make the company awesome. I worked at Google, I know what awesome looks like and I want to replicate it.


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