Do CTO’s Have To Code?

Software companies of all sizes and stages of their evolution have a person (or more) who fill the role of CTO.  In some cases, usually smaller companies and startups the CTO leads all technical and engineering activity and in others it’s the person who sets technical strategy, defines and builds the technical architecture and supports the development direction.  The common thread to all definitions is technical aptitude, skill and experience (of course).

In my experience, not enough focus is paid to the soft skills that a CTO must have to be successful.  Soft skills are interpersonal, communications, character, and emotional intelligence that enables one to be successful working with and leading people.  Regardless of whether the CTO has a lot of direct reports he or she must get people to follow their direction.  The CTO is often interacting with customers, prospects, stakeholders, investors and partners.  Being successful in these activities is not an automatic evolution from being a good software developer.

The Society for Information Management and others have studied the progression of skills required as one advances their IT career and traces the evolution from technical skill, problem solving and collaboration (at a junior level) to leadership, people management/relationships, strategic planning and decision making at the most senior levels.

Startups have the largest challenge in this regard because they are usually growing quickly and don’t have the time or capacity to help people develop these skills through experience, mentorship and trial and error.  In some instances, the founder of a software startup moves from the lead role (e.g. CEO) to CTO because the founder was the technical visionary.  In other cases, the founder(s) are strong in other aspects of the business and hire a CTO. This is where I see them struggle.  I am advising a company formed by lawyers and bankers who wanted to make sure their CTO “could write good code.”  On the other hand, their growth plan was aggressive and they were going to need a much more experienced CTO quickly.  I helped them revise their approach to understand the breadth of skills their CTO would need.  One option was to hire a lead developer, and manage their expectations that they weren’t going to be the CTO and the other alternative was to invest in a CTO-level person, early.   I’ve seen emerging companies where people held the title “CTO” but were shunted off into specific tasks because they weren’t capable of doing the full role, yet the startup has loyalty to them and doesn’t want them to quit.

Some people make the assumption that good technologists don’t have good soft skills, and certainly that stereotype is reinforced by some of our technical heroes from Silicon Valley.  In the real world that the rest of us live and work in, it is reasonable to expect the CTO to be able to lead a team to follow their direction, and make a reasonable presentation to a client prospect or an investor.

When I look to advise and/or invest in a startup I look hard at the CTO, to understand first if that person has the technical chops to lead the startup in the right direction and whether they have the soft skills to get people understand and follow their lead.  That’s a lot more important than whether they can write good code.