When the CTO is not management

Choose your CTO… and then trust her

A friend of mine got hired as a CTO three years ago. What started as an exciting position setting up the whole team, technology and processes for the company, ended up sidelined, micromanaged, with no responsibility over the team, and no decision over the technology.

I’ve discovered his case is not uncommon.

A few days ago I was chatting with some other friend. She mentioned the company she had been working for a few years ago. The CTO was also fired, and now developers are “properly managed”.

Then I remembered that other startup, with the VP of Engineering that resigned in less than 6 months because the technology department was considered an assembly line.

After the chat, when I got home, I saw in LinkedIn a contact from that small startup I interviewed for three years ago. Again CTO, technically very good, and with lots of experience is now “Principal developer” (he has been demoted).

I can see a pattern:

Tech startup founded by non-tech founders.
Founders know little about technology, so they hire a CTO like they would hire an accountant.
The CTO is only part of one team: technology. She is not part of management.
The CTO doesn’t sell. The CTO communicates with her team but not with the rest of the company. The CTO doesn’t manage expectations. So technology gets isolated into a support department, not the driving force of the company. Technology is perceived as a very expensive cost centre.
Eventually, when technology doesn’t provide the desired results, a stronger hand is needed. A whip. And if there is still a CTO, she will be demoted, or fired or sidetracked until he leaves.

A CTO is not a senior developer. CTOs need to have one leg in technology and the other in management. It’s not only programming. It is discussing pros and cons, planning long-term, creating a team, mixing strategy and product, managing priorities and expectations, understanding finance, and communicating across boundaries.

Your CTO has to be part of your management team.

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