What Is the Role of a CTO in an Early Stage Startup?

I talked to countless early-stage startups looking to hire a Chief Technology Officer. Many entrepreneurs just don’t understand the role of CTO in an early-stage startup. In a growing company, the role of Chief Technical Officer is somewhat defined. But in the case of an early-stage startup, the role of a CTO is often evolving and ambiguous.

In most startups, the role of the CTO is to do all of the technical tasks that nobody else is doing. It can be a long list and can cause friction in the early stages with CEO and other senior team members. That’s because when the role of any officer (or officers) is poorly defined, it can lead to overlap. That can lead to situations in which people step on one another’s toes. It also means that multiple people can be working on the same tasks. This is very inefficient and potentially even dangerous to a young company. Further, having everyone fill their appropriate roles as soon as possible minimizes time lost due to changing roles within the executive board once the company is further developed. In many cases, founders look for CTO or tech founder as a means to raise external funding. It might be harder to raise funding for a tech startup without a CTO or technical cofounder.Role of the CTO

Here we will discuss some of the most common roles that CTOs often get saddled within early-stage startups. Understanding those roles and how they can change can help you keep your startup organized as it develops.

Building the MVP

In tech startups, the minimum viable product is one of the first goals for most companies. The MVP is a basic but working version of your end product. Having an MVP helps you find partners, find funds, and begin advanced user testing.

In most mature companies, the CTO doesn’t code – he has higher-level obligations. However, early-stage startups usually don’t have big enough – or experienced enough – development teams. As a result, the CTO usually has some direct part in building the MVP.

Hiring Development and Engineering Teams

Hiring development and engineering teams is the kind of role that a CTO is supposed to have. They often fill this role early on as well. However, while roles are still being solidified in an early-stage startup, other figures like the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer may also be involved in the hiring process.

This isn’t necessarily a problem, as hiring is also an appropriate role for a CEO or CFO – especially in the early stages. The important thing is that the CEO, CFO, CTO, and any other executives understand their roles when it comes to hiring. This will make sure that development and engineering teams get hired without accidentally hiring too many people.

Identifying Internal Tools for Development

Like hiring development and engineering teams, identifying internal tools for development is a role that fits the CTO but that other executives in an early-stage startup may have a hand in. Also like hiring, it is more important that everyone understand who takes on this role than it is that one person, in particular, should have it.

However, as mentioned in the introduction, whoever you want to have this role down the road should begin to fill it as soon as possible so that they don’t have to “change ships mid-stream.”

Vendor Management Including Outsourcing Partners

Vendor management and outsourcing partners are more roles that may be filled by several people in the early stages of a startup. These roles are not particularly in-line with the roles traditionally associated with the CTO. However, early in the process, the CTO may be no worse-suited to filling these roles than anyone else.

In the interest of developing and maintaining specialization of roles, it may be advantageous to leave these roles to another individual like the CFO.

Developing Security Frameworks

Developing security frameworks often falls to the CTO in an early-stage startup. In some aspects this makes sense but in other aspects, it is a bit reductionist. Startups that place control of security with the CTO – or any other single position – often see security slip-ups by other executives.

The CTO can nominally be in charge of security frameworks but all members of the executive board should take responsibility for security and make sure that this responsibility makes its way to the rest of the organization.

DevOps

As the intersection of software development and information technology, DevOps is another task that should be well in your CTO’s area of expertise. However, because of its important function and complex nature, DevOps are often taken on by several executives in early-stage startups. That’s particularly true when the CTO is overburdened with other roles like that of a coder.

Once again, the important thing is to ensure that the person who will be in charge of DevOps in your ideal configuration is able to take it over when the time comes.

QA and Bug Triage

A similar problem can develop when it comes to things like bug triage.

Early on in a start-up’s life, when many people are wearing many hats, it can be easy for the development team to fix everything that they need to fix in the time that they have to fix it. As a result, the CTO – whether also acting as a coder or not – is often tasked with “triage.” This is a medical term that describes the process of determining which patients to help based on the extent of their injuries. In technology, it usually means prioritizing problems to be fixed so that the most serious and most manageable problems get fixed first.

In theory, this is a role that makes a lot of sense for a CTO to have. In practice, however, your organization will eventually reach a stage it which your development team can make fixes as they come along rather than putting some off because of a lack of time or resources.

Shielding the Development Team from Sales/Management Pressure

The CTO exists because, in an ideal world, development and sales are different worlds. This can be a hard distinction to maintain in the early stages of a startup but the CTO should be there to help maintain it.

Your organization should have sales and it should have developers. If either of these groups is spending time worrying about the other world, that is taking away from the time and energy that they should be spending working on their own initiatives. As a result, the CTO should be “shielding” the developers from this pressure.

Naturally, this puts the CTO in a delicate position. The CTO must make the development team aware of their responsibilities but should also make sure that sales and management problems do not become development problems.

Product Management

Product management should not be the role of the CTO. Individual products should be managed by individual product managers that work with the CTO and other executive officers to get things done. Early on, however, the CTO often takes on the role of product manager for however many products there are – or however many don’t have managers.

If the startup only has one product, which is often the case in the early stages, you may not even have a product manager because the sole product can be the sole charge of the whole team. However, the more products you have the more pressure it can put on your CTO. That is until you can identify more product managers.

Application Architecture

Whether or not application architecture should be the job of the CTO is a matter of degrees and of opinion. Depending on the strength of the development team, it can also be up to the CTO.

The CTO should be aware of what architecture is used in building any applications required by the organization. They may also select architecture. However, the CTO should be more of a foreman than a builder. How involved they are in actually building the application on that architecture usually varies with how involved they are in coding. This can also vary on the size and skill level of the development team. Early on the CTO may be more like “the first among many” coders and less like a CTO. As the development team grows and develops in their strengths, the CTO should be able to step back from such issues.

Managing Growth of the Tech Team

Managing growth of the tech team is a job that should take up much of the CTO’s time. However, in early stages of a startup, the CTO is often busy with lower-level functions and management of the tech team is taken on by other figures, often the CEO.

As the development team expands and grows, and the CTO can be less involved in the floor-level work like coding, they often end up taking over managing the tech team. Of course, it still isn’t a role that they handle alone. They should be working with other executive figures like the CFO.

Retaining Engineering Talent

Retaining engineering talent is a natural role for the CTO because the CTO should be the one working closest to the engineers. Again, the role of the CTO as “shield” between the engineers and the management should further strengthen this relationship.

This role should be particularly important to the CTO early in the process when losing a good engineer can be the largest setback.

Product Evangelist Inside and Outside of the Organization

The CTO is often called on to be a poster boy for products launched or in development by the organization. Depending on how involved they are, this may or may not be a problem.

Of course, sales or advertising teams should be the ones primarily in charge of spreading the word about the project. However, to some degree, every member of the organization should be a product evangelist.

The Busy CTO

Hopefully, this article should help you determine what roles you should and shouldn’t put on your CTO. However, it should also help you to understand that the early stages of a startup can be busy and a bit messy and that’s okay. Maintain a healthy relationship with your CTO – and everyone else for that matter – to determine that they are not being burdened with more than they can carry. Now you need to decide if you really need a CTO or you need a developer. In many cases, you only need a developer.

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