The Chief Technology Officer, or CTO, is the technology leader of a company. In today’s heavily tech focused world, this is a highly important position. The wrong technology strategy could leave your company lagging behind the competition, or even worse. The CTO is an executive that guides the company’s technical direction, oversees product development, and sits in the boardroom with other C-level executives.
Over the past 16+ years working professionally in technology, I have compiled a list of the top traits a CTO should have, from my own ventures leading, to those I have reported to and CTOs of customers I have worked with. These are not necessarily technical attributes but rather the complete picture. Some of these traits and duties may be shared among other positions in the company, but this is the overall picture.
So, whether you are an aspiring CTO or looking to hire one for your startup or corporation, here are 12 traits of an awesome one.
1. BE PASSIONATE AND LEAD THE VISIONARY WAY
CTOs are the cornerstone of technology in the business. Whether your company is a global distributor of food products or a developer of mobile applications, the CTO is key in making architectural decisions, committing to a scalable infrastructure, and deciding what makes the final cut. The CTO needs to understand both what is the current and future marketplace and how to get something there. All while making the company believe in his or her vision. Without a definitive (and preferably exciting) roadmap, the CTO can guide a company nowhere quickly. When people look back on their favorite CTOs, strong vision and passion are two of the most memorable things.
2. DON’T MICROMANAGE, DO PRIORITIZE AND DELEGATE
CTOs are problem solvers that once lived in the trenches. It is therefore common for leaders to have trouble releasing full control. Usual reasons people micromanage include tight deadlines, attempts to raise quality and need for control. Your CTO shouldn’t be micromanaging to achieve any of these. If your CTO does these things, make him or her let go and believe in your team. The results will follow.
3. GET RESPECT, BE A TECH GURU
People love to work for those they respect. In the tech world, being a CTO means knowing your stuff. They don’t need to ask someone what HTML stands for. I once knew a CTO whose first words in a meeting were “I am not technical.” Regardless of how they got to that position, they needed to change, and quickly (unfortunately as that story goes, that did not happen – and it didn’t end well for the CTO). I have also worked with CTOs who everyone looks up to, based on their razor sharp knowledge and technical instinct. Developers know when they’re working for someone that understands what they have been through, someone that respects their craft. If your CTO is not one of those people, he or she may want to become one.
4. BE TOUGH, REALISTIC AND ALWAYS HONEST
Toughness is required in many different situations, from saying no to clients to defusing situations that go wrong. This means not being a “yes man or woman.” It also means setting high standards and not accepting excuses. A good CTO is tough but fair. Smart developers may not agree with a decision being made, which may be out of the CTO’s control. The key in these situations is to remain strong and realistic. Being honest goes without saying. Always be square with your team, your peers and your customers.
5. KNOW THE ART OF THE SELL
CTOs need to sell both within an organization and also when facing the public in a variety of situations. They may be selling your product to investors, asking for buy-in from a consumer group, or trying to win over their own team about why the corporate strategy is changing. You never know when a CTO will find himself in a random sales situation. Understanding who you are selling to and the art of the sell will enable your CTO to reach a broad and important audience, which increasingly is who your customers are turning to for the hard technical facts.
6. KNOW YOUR NUMBERS AND UNDERSTAND BUSINESS
CTOs have budgets and targets. Ensure that your CTO knows KPIs from ROIs. The CTO also needs to know who is performing, who’s on the bench and their utilization rates. Numbers may or may not come naturally to the CTO, so ensure he or she gets help where needed. A CTO can be found in all corners of the office, from the executive boardroom to the engine room. Your CTO should have a diverse mix of skills, ranging from understanding business to knowing the ins and outs of your product. It’s not enough to be just great at technology. Invest in time and training to get them to a good level if he or she is not already there.
7. HIRE AND ACKNOWLEDGE SMARTER PEOPLE
CTOs have the power to hire great people below them. And with technology being a rapidly expanding and broad field, the competition for great talent can be tough. With many talented developers, designers and architects out there, the CTO should get what he can to hire and keep the best people.
8. BE FEARLESS
You won’t always win, but you will succeed. When you lead products into the market, be excited, not fearful. If something isn’t working or needs disruptive change, prepare for the situation and then enjoy the ride. I once worked with a CTO who was so worried about failure that nothing changed in the product direction for years. You can imagine how customers reacted to that approach.
9. ASK QUESTIONS AND LISTEN
There are many variables when it comes to technology. Who will use the product, when will they use it, how do they expect to use it, why are we building this. And all the permutations. Punch holes in theories until you are satisfied you understand the situation completely.
10. MAKE DECISIONS QUICKLY
As Henry Ford once said, “Indecision is often worse than wrong action.” CTOs develop an instinct over time to make quick rational decisions. There are many times when a CTO is under pressure to analyze a situation and provide a response. This ranges from a major investment decision for the company to a commitment you are making to your customer base. Be confident and make good decisions. A former CTO was such a perfectionist that it took almost 2 years to make a simple technical decision on infrastructure, which was ultimately a good one but could have been made sooner. In this case there wasn’t much to think about, and the company in the meantime lived with poor infrastructure, which affected the product.
11. GET A LIFE
People respect you when you know there is more to life outside of the office. Whether you enjoy hiking on weekends, you’re a crazy sports fan, a weekend traveller, doing something will not only make you feel better about life, it will excite those around you. This will also allow for better communication and raise creativity in the office.
12. KEEP LEARNING
Technology is used in a company in many ways, including the corporate website, the company portal, machine virtualization, business applications, applications they sell, apps they use, software measuring metrics, cloud platforms, connectivity and integrating all of this together. The CTO needs to have a strong knowledge of all of the above in order to make informed decisions. This means learning and staying ahead of the curve. As John F. Kennedy once said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”