The most successful businesses I’ve worked with have one thing in common: excellent leadership. As the president of a custom software development firm, I have learned this from working with dozens of businesses of all sizes and types.
In particular, a technology visionary who is also a good manager is essential for a growing company and especially a startup. The right technology decisions make your product and company scalable and keep your team lean.
Based on what I’ve seen, here are the top qualities that distinguish a great chief technology officer (CTO) from merely a good one.
- Strong engineering discipline: Good CTOs should be able to apply practical knowledge to build better software. They shouldn’t rely on people under them or consultants for technical expertise. Those who lack technical discipline may end up authorizing decisions that lead to a lot of “technical debt” or incorrect code to the company which will need to be recreated. For example, one of my friend’s companies created a custom framework rather than relying on a proven technology like Ruby on Rails. His CTO didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to get new hires up to speed writing code on an unproven framework. Custom frameworks don’t scale for larger companies. Now, my friend’s company has to completely rewrite their software. A CTO who has been well-trained in building software will be able to avoid such pitfalls.
- Experience: CTOs should have experience with both managing people and guiding technical strategy. Technical discipline, after all, comes from seeing projects through and learning from successes and failures. They should have experience managing people as well as the process. Although one of our clients had a staff full of talented developers, he chose to bring in a CTO with leadership experience when his company got a new round of funding. This CTO has helped him structure his growing company and has done a great job managing the people in addition to the code.
- A large, quality network: No one knows everything. If your CTO has a good network, she can easily fill the gaps in her knowledge. One of our clients got in touch with us at SmartLogic when he needed an iPhone application quickly but didn’t have any iOS programmers in-house. Because this CTO had us in his network, he was able to get the app developed without going through the arduous process of hiring a full-time developer. A good CTO’s network can include trusted development firms, engineers and consultants who can answer niche questions.
- A practical approach: Your CTO should be a true team player who puts his or her ego aside when necessary. Sometimes our clients have to cut technical corners to meet market demands. If your marketing department is asking you to use PhoneGap to patch together a mobile app because it needs it out the door ASAP, a CTO might need to sacrifice her ego and love of good code to do it. Part of a CTO’s job is to ensure that technical strategy matches overall business strategy. Sometimes, compromises must be made.
- Good communication skills: A CTO must be able to translate between technical and non-technical people. The CTO title implies that there’s also a CEO and possibly a COO. She must be able to communicate to these stakeholders how technical choices affect business goals, and she must also be able to communicate to her team of engineers how business goals should drive technical choices. For our client projects, we have a clear system of meetings and communications to ensure that key business stakeholders have input in technical decisions. A CTO who is talented at translating between business and technical spheres streamlines communication and ensures that the project is going in the right direction.
- Strategic thinking: The CTO must be focused on the big picture, not individual lines of code. He should have a huge role in the overall direction of the product and the technology that’s coming out. It’s his job to look out for new advances in technology and make sure your company keeps up or jumps ahead. Around 2010, it was acceptable not to have mobile-optimized CSS for your website. Now, your company will look outdated if you don’t. Our most successful clients have CTOs who recognize the value of staying apace with technical trends and think strategically about the future.
- Knowledge of the landscape of tools: If you create your own tool when one already exists, it means you’re uninformed and losing company money. We have spent a lot of time (i.e., money) rebuilding client software to take advantage of a tool or code library that will improve the code. Often, these tools existed all along, but the client didn’t do the research. CTOs have to stay on top of the newest and greatest tools, because the right tool could save your company time and money.
Does your CTO have these eight qualities? If not, it’s time to think about whether your business has the right people on board for success. If the answer is no, can you find a new job for your current CTO and bring in a new person better suited for the job? And if you really can’t afford a CTO yet, at least budget for a smart technical person who will grow into a great CTO.