What is a CTO?

Sep 1 2020

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what a CTO is. It’s important to really think through this role as it can have such a huge impact on companies both large and small. You can search the web for “startup CTO vs. big company CTO”, “CTO vs. VP Engineering”, etc., but those debates miss the point. What matters is understanding the function of a CTO in your organization. And I assert that a CTO is an executive who serves the business through the deployment of technology.

That’s it! The details of implementation will vary widely based on company, industry, and the strengths and weaknesses of the individual CTO. But at its heart, this role requires a leader who has a strong fundamental understanding of technology and how to use it to support a business.

What, then, is technology? It’s easy to assume that things just “get better” over time. We’ve emerged from the cave and tilled the earth, dammed the streams, and harnessed the power of the sun as we march towards greater standard of living. However, none of these advancements were inevitable. Progress depends on us inventing the future.

This topic is more important than ever. It’s hard to argue that software is eating the world, and as a result, every company is now becoming software. Technology advancement has accelerated change in every walk of life. Powered by trends of cheap computing power and new techniques to analyze data, this wave of extracting value from data is overhauling every and any domain it gets its hands on.

Is this wave of technological progress “good”? Any type of significant change can and will cause issues like job displacement, but I believe that as technology helps automate mundane labor, it should create opportunities for human beings to focus on higher-level, more creative work. This underscores the importance of having strong, thoughtful education for everyone young and old.

Given the speed and complexity of these trends, it’s important to have someone who understands technology at a sufficiently deep level (software, hardware, whatever). I’ve found the best CTO’s form strong opinions about their technology choices, yet dispassionately remain open to searching for the best solution. They rely on tried-and-true systems rather than chase what’s trendy. They push hard for excellence, but balance that with sensitivity to solving the customer’s problem in a cost-effective way.

It’s also important to note that a CTO is an executive. I think the toughest thing for a newly-dubbed CTO to learn is how to scale not just code but an entire organization. As a lead engineer or architect, your choices are mostly constrained to scaling infrastructure or analyzing data. Once that “C” shows up in your title, however, your biggest challenges tend to be people-problems. Which seats on the bus do I fill first? Can I grow this junior resource into a contributor, or do we need to move on? Can I make peace between two warring factions? You’re definitely moving “up the stack” here, and it requires a wholly different skillset than what got you here.

Personally, I value the opportunities I’ve had to serve as CTO because I know that I can have a meaningful impact on a company. I know my decisions will have consequences, and I relish the challenge to move the needle where I can. Most of all I enjoy aligning a team towards a common goal. By its nature, technology strives to improve how we live our lives, and to serve as the steward for its application is a privilege.

I’ve also been blessed to have found an informal network of mentors who I rely on regularly when facing tough decisions. I’m hoping I can start to do the same.

At the end of the day, it’s just really cool to helping spearhead the deployment of technology for an organization. I’m a huge Elon Musk fan for a lot of reasons, but his quote about why he went into engineering really spoke to me:

Just really cool to think about engineering in terms of building new things which enable really smart people to keep making progress and ultimately improve our collective consciousness. It’s inspiring to think we’re all trying to play a part to create a better future. It’s why I pivoted from a pure mathematics career to one grounded in technology. Because it’s “what’s next”

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