What should a CTO (and the engineering team at that) do in a startup?



A CTO has to bring value to the end customers ...through technology. While earning a profit.

The key part: VALUE, not technology.

Eventhough that seems obvious and clear, I'm tired of seeing the opposite in the industry day to day. A lot of them think on the lines of:

This new javascript framework, Predux, lets you add second-degree animations on secondary-link hover... We should redo our whole front-end, that's the future. Anonymous, 2016, Front-is-the-new-Full Conference

This is a quick list of things a bad CTO does

  • "not have time" to clear technology debt... ever
  • refuse to use any third-party API's, librarys, when the problem to solve isn't core to the business
  • incorporating the new-latest-technology-trend, even when it doesn't solve any customer problem
  • code EVERYTHING EVERYTIME anybody asks for a feature, a metric, or anything really
  • not differentiate between a: MVP (Minimum Viable Product), prototype, MLP (Minimum Lovable Product), and full-on features

All those silly examples can be boiled down to: developping new technolical solutions, just because he/she can or wants to. Ignoring how much (if any) value it may add to the customer, compared to the time and resources invested in it.

By now you should have noticed my light fixation on bringing value to the customer. If so, we can then pass on to the important question.

How can a CTO add the most value to its customers?

This is where the magic happens. If there was an easy cookie-cutter answer to this, good CTO's wouldn't earn so much money. On the other hand, if it was entirely up to luck and "magic", there would not exist "good" and "bad" CTO's. There are definetly strategies, good practices and mental models we can follow.

The most powerful ones I have seen so far are:

1) Who in your company brings the most value to your customers? And what can you do to empower them?

Does your company sell a subscription SAAS? If so, 5 out of 10 times, the ones adding value are the product, design, and developper teams. Most probably it's in the mix of the 3 teams where the real value is born. And 4 out of 10 times it's in the Marketing team. The remaining 1 / 10 is the technology itself.

Or, perhaps, you work in a company that sells / has physical products? If so: marketing, product and distribution is where the

What could you do as the CTO to help them? Could the developpers use faster deployment systems to spend more time coding features and less fighting with the servers? How long do design and engineering spend arguing about the implementations? Is your engineering team testing too much or too little? Does Product have access to all the data and metrics they need to make the best decistions they can? How do all 3 teams communicate?

How long does your Marketing team need to generate a new landing page? They will probably have to talk to Design to make it, so PLEASE don't tell me they ALSO need to talk to engineering to make it? And how long to generate 3 landing pages to be able to test and optimize all the €€€€ you spend on advertisement?

It's not about technology, nor having the most beautiful and efficient code. It's about empowering the people that bring to your customer the value they are paying you for, through technology.

2) How will the company look in 2, 5, 10 years? What needs and size will it have?

Talk with the CEO,founders, stakeholders, and ask them how do they see the company in 2, 5, and 10 years. How will your company communicate with your customers? What will you sell? How?

All that will need technology and architecture. Both so that the operations don't run you to the ground, and so that you can deliver the highest level of service.

Is your current tech stack and architecture prepared for it? How many users will you have? Can your servers scale? Can they hold the required performance at scale? Will it cost a fortune?

What can you do so your system can take it, and make a profit at that?

Final words

You will notice I haven't recommended you, specifically at least, Blockchain, the latest Javascript framework, AI, or any hot #buzzords of the tech world. Good. Because the one that chooses if any of those things add any value shouldn't be me, but your customers. And that is the only thing that matters at the end of the day.

But, you may ask, everybody in the company should worry and deliver value to the customer, right? What makes a CTO and engineering different to the other teams?

Easy, the "T" in "CTO" stands for technology. You have been hired to add value through your set of skills, like everybody else. But, unlike everbody else, you know why good code is good, why bad code is bad, and how much art goes into setting up systems under a deadline that scale and don't explode.