The one job of the early stage startup CTO

Startup leadership roles are unusual because the job changes so rapidly. Someone doing the role of CEO or CTO when the company is founded will find themselves doing something very different 18 months later.

When hiring executives, look for people who have the experience and background that would make them a good fit or hire for the next 12–18 months. Anything shorter than that and they will not be able to scale sufficiently far relative to the time it takes to hire them. Anything longer and you will over-hire and end up with someone who is a bad fit for the job.

Gil, Elad. High Growth Handbook (p. 119)

The startup CTO is usually the founder with the best technology background and they will usually be the one leading the development of the initial product. However, the word “Technology” in the title is misleading because it is not the most important part.

For early stage startups seeking product market fit, the CTO’s one job is to figure out how to hit the business milestones using technology. Understanding the business is what differentiates the CTO from a software engineer. This means setting up the technology team and processes to iterate quickly based on feedback from commercial interactions with early customers.

The early stage CTO must be comfortable with technical debt and inefficient processes. They need to be able to make the tradeoff between building the perfect technical architecture and creating something good enough. They must understand what is built in the early months is unlikely to survive for long, and most of the codebase will be rewritten at some point. However, they must also decide when it’s right to do that rewriting and refactoring, which is never in the early stages of startup life and never the whole codebase in one go.

The early stage startup CTO only focuses on the one or two elements that truly differentiate the company, and outsources everything else to SaaS or cloud products. This means using cloud services, not building your own. It means creating a monolithic codebase rather than hundreds of microservices. It means tying together 3rd party services and paying with cash rather than time. Later, it means deciding which services to bring in-house and which to just keep paying for. Netflix runs their own CDN because this is core to their business, but everything else is run on AWS. The early stage startup CTO has to figure this out for their own business.

Developer productivity is affected by bad code and reliability (redundancy, tests, deploys) requires investment. The early stage startup CTO has to decide what is critical to build now and what can wait. The priority is proving whether the business is viable.

It’s an uncomfortable state to be in – chaos – but the early stage startup CTO will know that it only lasts for a short time. Unless the product is in a regulated industry or safety critical, these tradeoffs have to be made because money and time are so limited. Think of the reliability problems of early Twitter, or the poor client performance of Slack. These annoyed users but in the end didn’t negatively affect the outcome.

If the product is compelling enough, users will accept rough edges for a period of time. “How long?” is another difficult question the early stage startup CTO has to answer.

Only as the company scales (in terms of people and revenue) will the CTO start to think about the Technology element of their title. This will include helping teams make technical and architectural decisions as well as building the management structures around how engineering is run. Eventually, a new role – VP, Engineering – splits off to focus on the people:

A VP Engineering is ideally a great manager and a great team builder. He or she will be an excellent recruiter, a great communicator, and a great issue resolver. The VP Eng’s job is to make everyone in the engineering organization successful and he or she needs to fix the issues that are getting in the way of success.

A CTO is ideally the strongest technologist in the organization. He or she will be an architect, a thinker, a researcher, a tester and a tinkerer. The CTO is often the technical co-founder if there is one (and you know I think there must be one).

VP Engineering vs CTO

Until then, the only thing the CTO should be focused on is using technology to enable the startup business goals. Business, through technology. Everything else is secondary.