What does a startup CTO actually do?
First, a CTO is neither the best programmer nor the best manager. Why not the best programmer? Because it is not his only task, he usually needs more time. Instead of implementing technology himself, it is more important to be able to communicate technology. This means being on par with your own (implementing) team and being able to relate to less technically savvy stakeholders (such as investors or salespeople).
But he doesn’t even have to be the best programmer because, at some point, engineers, tech leads, and architects will come into the company anyway, and they can spend all their time on it. Why not the best manager? He cares too much about the bottom line. He’s all about the total cost of ownership as a visionary and founder. It’s important to him to do the right things right so that he doesn’t have to pay for them later with technical debt and avoid over-engineering.
However, this is also fine. There is an Engineering Manager or VP of Engineering at some point for fast shipping. These manager roles are very process- and results-oriented. A CTO represents both the technology side and the business side. The two need to be combined. However, this is not about dictating your tech stack to every employee or micromanaging developers.
It’s about business decisions.
And above all, it’s about implementing them. Levers must be found for how technology can be used for the business model. Challenges need to be broken down into their technical components, assessed risks, and then re-puzzled back together. As the company changes, Like any other startup founder, a CTO takes on multiple roles until they are gradually replaced by new employees and, later, entire teams. In the chart (above), I listed what these roles are across the stages of a company. Your mileage may vary.
Pre-Seed Phase ¶
He is alone, builds the product alone, thinks about the UX, makes many compromises in the code to ship fast, answers all support requests, and is responsible for quality and bugs.
He wears headphones and is fortunately rarely disturbed.
Seed phase ¶
Now he builds a team, has 1-3 developers, possibly freelancers and designers in the group, thinks more conceptually, must have a roadmap at least in his head, buys IT equipment and sets it up, is more concerned with employee development than his own and focuses on eliminating the overhead created by new hires.
He still wears headphones as often as possible, but this is only sometimes respected.
In addition to the product and business model work, he establishes interfaces with the rest of the company. The whole team must be involved in product development, and budgets must be planned and managed.
Series A and beyond ¶
He increasingly represents the company to external parties, consider which acquisitions will allow the company to grow even faster, and sometimes has to participate in important sales meetings in a representative capacity.
He doesn’t wear headphones most of the time because he’s only in meetings, but when he does, again, it’s respected.
In his leadership role, he must lead product development. Ultimate Problem Solver put, a CTO is the ultimate problem solver in a company. No one else is as involved in both the problem and solution domains. It is the person everyone turns to when they need a problem solved, or something changed. In the same way, a CTO has to constantly ask themselves what the company needs - and make that happen, continually evaluate where the most significant technical opportunities (but also risks) are and tackle them.