055 The startup CTO

Many people refer to the designation CTO as the Chief Technical Officer; in fact, it means the Chief Technology Officer. I have never heard of someone referring to it as Chief Technological Officer though. This function has other similar titles too, viz. Head — Technology, VP — Technology, VP — Engineering, Head — Engineering, Chief Product & Technology Officer, and Director of R&D. There are a lot of correlations that the CTO role has with the CPO role and the CIO role.

The CTO Job

I am going to define all the responsibilities that this position holds in simple words. However, I do not make a bifurcation as to the type of skills required by a CTO depending on the level of maturity of a startup organization. I do trust the philosophy that a CTO has to be a coder to some degree.

Tech Skills

S/he must know the Full Stack, AI, ML, and Tools, with experience to Evaluate and to Select. The ideal case for most businesses is a CTO who does everything in Tech, even build the product. But since companies will want everything as on yesterday, and there will be moving targets, a one-person show is not likely to happen, unless you have much time in your hands. It will be a team effort that the CTO will manage. You may tick all the boxes as a CTO, but if the inventive spirit does not appear in a tangible form, then the prime reason for hiring a CTO would have made no sense in ROI terms. Finally, a business understands that it hired a great person as a CTO only by the way it wowed the business owners themselves. The CTO must have a love of technology, and he must keep up with technology, and with newer technology. The CTO should be a coder, first of all, and not only a people manager.


S/he must have in-depth knowledge of a Line of Business. If you are developing a health-care product, you would want the Tech Chief to also know about health-care ideally. For developing an insurance product, you might prefer experience in insurance. Even then, there is no hard and fast rule.


S/he will deal with Development, Deployment, and Testing. MVP means a Minimum Viable Product that has not reached the production stage yet.


S/he will deal with Encryption, Protection, Privacy, Security, Whitelisting, and Backup.


S/he will deal with Development, Versioning, Updates, Integration, Roadmap, Innovation, IPR, QA, Enhancements, and Monitoring. The output has to have the product-market fit, and it must lead towards revenues.


S/he will deal with Selection, Hire, Fire, Onboard, Retention, Train, KRA, KPI, Outsourcing and Insourcing percentages.


S/he will deal with Front-End, Back-End, Architecture, Infrastructure, Cloud, Web, App, Web + App, Tactical or Strategic solutions, Capacity Planning, and Prototyping. The CTO is a person who will say “yes” for Technology A, and “no” for Technology B. As Jared Diamond, Author, says, “Technology has to be adopted or invented.” If s/he changes this in the middle or makes wrong choices, the business stands to lose much time, waste money, and focus. The CTO has to avoid rework at any point in the future, and he has to get it right the first time.


S/he will also deal with how to interpret the landscape on the radar. As Jeff Bezos says, “If you’re competitor focused, you have to wait until there is a competitor doing something. Being customer-focused allows you to be more pioneering.”


S/he will deal with the metrics of Technology, Team, Hardware, and Infrastructure.


S/he will deal with Compliance, Audit, Best Practices, Certifications, Standards, Documentation, Renewals, Analytics, Laws, Fees, and Licensing.


S/he will deal with Fixes, Debug, Tasks, Deadlines, Milestones, Support, Execution, Allocation, SOPs and Iteration. The life of a CTO is always about Red, Amber & Green. There will always be work at multiple stages of completion, with varying severities and priorities. It will all be a juggle.


S/he will deal with Calculation, Forecasting, Monitoring, Allocation, Capex and Opex trade-offs for resources and Tech. The general perception of Tech is that of a Cost Centre rather than a Profit Centre. Hence, many startup companies are reluctant to spend extra money on Tech. However, they would want an excellent product with all features. Still, the CTO has to keep economic viability in mind.


S/he will engage in SWOT analysis, User Research, and Competitor Analysis. Also, Tech Deprecations to take note of what is in and what is out.

Fund Raising

VCs and PEs want to see the Tech face of a startup, and the technologies used. Hence, the CTO’s presence in investor meetings will be necessary, and s/he must be able to take them through any Tech audit.

Soft Skills

S/he will be a Supervisor, Motivator, Solver, Thinker, Delegator, Mentor, Communicator, Collaborator, Team Player, Inventor, Experimental, Inspirational, Hustler, Influencer, Decision Maker, and Risk-Taker. Just hard work, dedication and determination will not make a good CTO or a great CTO.


S/he will deal with Business Development, Marketing, Pre-Sales, Post-Sales, Operations, Vendors, Employees, and Investors.

Can the CTO and the CPO be the same?

CPO is the Chief Product Officer, and they can be the same person. As a business owner, you may have hired an excellent product resource but who does not have Tech experience. Then you may keep the CTO and the CPO as separate functions. What if the business gets a person who is an excellent CTO fit and has also worked in the same product domain? The startup may merge both these functions into one, to save money. I think the CTO and the CPO should be the same person, or you will also end up wasting much time in complementing each other. You may differentiate the two if you have got a great CTO, but he may not have the domain knowledge, and you still retained him/her. And then you had to fill in someone who would know about enhancing the product, and you got a products person on board.

You may have all the skills in the world with technical perfection. However, the very essence of a CTO is in this line by Stewart Butterfield, Co-Founder Flickr & Slack: “It’s very difficult to design something for someone if you have no empathy.”

Another point. You may make a product or a service with the top, popular technologies; however, if the business model lacks gravity, the CTOs role will not gravitate towards magic. That is why Tech and business are so entwined. And vice versa. If the business model is great, but the Tech ruins it, maybe because of the intellectual capital or the human capital or the priorities, then you may have a real, bad experience. Every move that you make as a CTO can cost the company money, and the ROI can be very far-fetched, or there may be no ROI. There will always be newer technologies. It can appear as early as tomorrow or a year later. But, as Mark Zuckerberg says, “The biggest risk is not taking any risk. In a world that’s changing quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”

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