If you want to grow, be sure to get an awesome CTO
By Konstantin Kudryashov, CTO in Residence, Kamet Ventures
When you think of a CTO you may imagine someone completely technology focused, with their head down on product development, dealing in technical terms no one understands, and with little role in the overall running of the business. However, in reality the best CTOs are the ones that balance their ability to think technically with the ability to build and support overarching business strategy. Take Cathy Polinsky, the CTO of Stitch Fix, an online personal styling service as an example. She was pivotal in transforming the company into the disrupting unicorn it is today, defining the customer experience that helped form the company’s success but also contributed to the internal strategy and culture of the company by streamlining the way the office workers worked with the warehouse workers as the company grew exponentially.
Win some, lose most
The earliest build stages of a startup rely heavily on the expertise of the CTO. At this point, the company may have identified the market problem that needs fixing but no one yet knows what the solution will end up looking like, how the tech will need to evolve, and if it is even viable for the market. Whilst testing ideas falls on the whole team, the CTO is required to be skilled at testing several ideas quickly and effectively, identifying when they are wrong, and moving on to testing the next possible solution.
This rapid experimentation is a crucial phase for early stage businesses. Most startups have secured some seed funding but that only gives a small amount of time to find the viable solution, and scarce resources to do it. Spending too much time on one idea that is not going to work might end up costing the business more than it could gain or stop it from getting off the ground at all.
For example, both Flickr and Slack started as completely different businesses and pivoted to become some of the most successful technology businesses to date. This was due to several iterations of the product and understanding what the market needed at the time. This can only be done through rigorous testing and the ability to let go of not working ideas early.
In fact, accepting that you will be wrong is one of the most important and underrated skills a CTO can have throughout their career. It can be easier at the start of a company’s life, with a small team of people that know each other well but becomes much harder as it grows, with larger teams and corresponding expectations. It is a lot of pressure for one person to shoulder but if they are willing to accept they don’t always have all of the answers, they will ultimately find it easier to get to the right solution much faster.
Engage the business brain
Before any business starts there are three key questions that need to be answered:
- What is the problem?
- What is the solution?
- How do we build a business around it?
In an ideal world, a founder would be able to cover all three of these areas. However, it is near impossible to have all the necessary knowledge in one head. What is possible for them is to add their breadth and depth of expertise into the collaborative learning and discovery of these questions.
For example, although a CTO by traditional standards is focused on the technical aspects of a product (i.e. the solution) it is incredibly useful if they are able to think about how their technical changes will help or fit in with the wider business model. This will help them avoid making tactical changes for the sake of it and instead work on improvements that will benefit the business and product strategies.
As the business grows a CTO’s role continues to grow less and less regimented and you begin to work on several different priorities at once. For example, rather than working on one product, you are now the head of a team that will be working on several products at once, and you have to provide the unifying vision that ties them all together. Your team needs to be aware that you are across all facets of the tech team from desk research, to coding. In startups there’s never time for someone to be just “leader”, “thinker” or “doer”. Everyone has to be all of these at different times. CTO is in equal measures a researcher, a strategist and a coder. This continues for as long as the startup is a startup and not an established business with departments to spare.
As well as learning what will work best for the business, CTOs also have a responsibility to educate others. Whether it’s the CEO, CFO or sales team, the CTO needs to help the wider team understand what the technology can and can’t do. This is especially vital if a startup is to be able to move quickly enough to survive and grow because they need to understand options available and be able to pivot the business plan in unison. For example, the fast testing and failing mentioned earlier would not be possible if each test had to go through multiple team members before being certified as failed. Instead, each member has to know enough to understand when the tech is not up to scratch to fulfill the business model, and when it is.
Where once the CTO conjured images of a technologist tinkering in a computer lab, the role of the modern CTO encompasses so much more. They are required to be agile, make difficult decisions quickly, and ultimately set the direction of the business by defining the course of the technology.