The start-up CTO — Why?

The one about — ‘why you need a CTO’

Welcome to ‘Start Up CTO’ — my notes on everything StartUp, Technology and CTO. Having built two tech companies from scratch (and a third within a larger global firm that needs its very own story) I’m sharing the different perspectives I have experienced; and through different lenses what I learnt on the way.

Technology has a massive share of the start-ups across any nation — because it is simple right? No stock, no warehouse, no regulations (?!) and 000s of users already linked to app stores, the internet and their favourite browser. Must be like fishing in a barrel. In fact, all you need is either a brand new idea or a way of implementing an old idea in a much more compelling way.

Like many new industries this new digital technology wave of growth and opportunity has built services, products and companies faster than formality and regulation can keep up with. Can you imagine Civil Engineering, Medicine or Nuclear Power operating without strict guidelines, regulations and standards? Much of Technology does too, of course, but in reality much doesn’t. Whilst we can analyse the many roles within Technology, let’s start at the top with the CTO. They own the problems and the solutions, and in start-up land does all this with less time, people and money than they want and need.

I’m going to look at the who, the why, the what and the how of start-up technology from the front line. We will cover in no particular order architecture, service, buy vs build, prioritisation, security, hiring and coaching, budgets, marketing, selling, operating, building, testing and releasing.

Firstly, who is the CTO?

Definitively the CTO is the person looking after technology within an enterprise that sells a product which is entirely or significantly technology based. (This differentiates from a CIO, IT Director or Services orientated role — each of which runs IT or systems that support). Whatever the size of the company, the CTO is going to tick all the RACI boxes, ultimately being accountable for the platform & product on a 24/7 basis.

A second high level definition — what is a start up? It is an idea and/or company in its infancy. Regardless of funding and ownership at the point of inception it has nothing and wants to be something (with customers) quickly.

In this first of the ‘The start-up CTO’ series, I’m going to tackle the CTO definition in depth to cover what I hope is a wide audience of interest; If you are involved in any way in the building of (or even thinking about) a technology start up you’ll need to address many things. You are either deeply technical and ready to invent or deeply business orientated ready to create. As one of my favourite expressions goes, whilst the entire business should broadly understand the technology, the technologist should completely understand the business — every aspect of it.

I’d like to support that view in these articles; helping the CTO be the technical business leader they should be, but also those senior roles in the new company understanding what the role is.

If you are trying to work out if you need one, or have to hire a CTO, what are you looking for, why do you need one, and how will you know if you find it? Good CTO’s are hard to come by, and skilled start-up ones rarer still. Equally if you want to be one, or indeed currently sitting in the chair wondering how you got there — read on, this is for you.

The ideal candidate can be considered like this:

  • A user-focused individual who has brought product to an external market, seen it generate real income and supported those customers
  • A software developer of multiple languages across many industry verticals having developed solutions across business and consumer audiences
  • A specialist in Agile, not just as a practitioner but in driving a Lean Manufacturing approach to complex product delivery
  • An end to end experienced person from ‘requirement to live service’ with respect to the entire Software Delivery Lifecycle
  • Someone who understands quality and delivers the automation to keep it healthy, recognising the value of site reliability engineering
  • A cloud experienced engineer ready to develop systems good for the 2020’s
  • An operations minded technologist who develops knowing it has to work 24/7 with minimal or no human support
  • A highly skilled team builder with a strong devops culture of one-team winning together

And this initial list can grow, easily extending in to the skills and experience that would report to or sit on the new start up board. In a future post we can look to extend that list, and indeed debate the MoSCoW rating of each. This is all very well, but before reading CVs lets tackle the why before the who.

Why have one?

Well beyond creating, servicing and continually growing the technology product, the CTO will need to show ROI on the investment, hire and retain an awesome team and, crucially, make all that seem like a well executed plan. Further, sell the roadmap to investors across the private individual to Angels and large capital houses. It may be early in the journey but you will be growing a story for your sale or IPO from day one.

Structurally (people) your start-up needs three things to attract the fourth — customers. A business plan and owner (CEO), Technology and Product ownership (CTO) and effective sales (COO or Sales Director). Everything else is secondary. These three people are key to setting the strategy, executing ruthlessly and managing the growing enterprise and culture. Other important factors like Marketing, Talent and the Office Manager are ok to wait in the wings; focus early before you grow.

You can try, and many do, a lead developer as a subordinate to build a product and services to your specification, and no doubt you will produce something. Likely though this will major on the product, but not the strategy. The outputs will be good, the process and lifecycle management less so. Customers will come but investors won’t. The recruitment market is full of CTO-hunts for companies that have outgrown the tech team that lacks leadership and control.

Perhaps you could outsource the whole build, which will save on recruiting a CTO and a team and the risks of talent, skill and experience that may or may not land well. There are hundreds of on shore, near shore and off shore suppliers following many different models that are keen for your business. Again, you’ll get code and a product but I’ve seen these early relationships and the downsides all too clearly. It is likely the technology choices and deliverables under the ‘hood’ will be made by the available resources rather than the long term roadmap you really need to create with well aligned architectural decisions. The lacking part is often ownership and accountability. If you want an app you’ll get one, but further develop the idea and platform and the cracks will show. The local team in the start up owns the outcomes, the off shore supplier is purely accountable for the short term contract. There are merits to this model but it is a call for the CTO to make and manage. If you can find a young start up that hasn’t already started to refer to its first platform as ‘legacy’ I like to meet them.

In many cases the startup founders are ‘non-tech’ and this has many advantages. Being able to conceive the idea and sell it is what you need to major in. Your time feels short, your cash shorter. Can you afford a full time CTO? Can you find a ‘junior’ CTO that is cheaper, or will that cost more in the long run? Can you follow the cheapest paths above and worry about architecture, platform, security and process later? You know the answer, but you need to get something to market quickly and on a small budget to prove the idea. However I would be wary of getting past the first hurdles of investment, only to fall at Due Diligence when a Tech expert comes to nose around your platform. One way forward is to proxy in a CTO part time; There are many senior technologists that have done enough large scale process driven exactitude, coupled with experience of the balancing act of start-up technology that will step in part time to steer those early days — and some of those interventions will be priceless in return for a day-rate, equity or the sheer joy of involvement. I’ve been paid in all three types. That just leaves the question of when do you need a full time CTO, to which an answer will easily come as product, service demand and complexity grow under their own steam.

In this first article we’ve raised a number of big questions and my series seeks to answer each in turn whilst also extending in to all the areas of creating a successful start-up business that will surround your product. Whatever your role in your start-up — let’s explore the pathway from ‘zero to something’. And let’s make that ‘something’ valuable, extensible, secure, beautiful, automated, scalable, intuitive and operable.

Coming soon — ‘The start-up CTO; the one about MVPs’