Mr. CTO… Time To Let Your Baby Go

In this post, I shift my attention from the founding CEO of the early stage software company… to the founding CTO. My last post was titled Mr CEO, Would You Hire Yourself. It concerned the necessity of the transition of the founding CEO from the entrepreneurial CEO to the managerial one.

In this post, I will address the founding CTO who needs to progress through his own transition of allowing others to be a part of shaping the future of the product, and the best road to get there.

Let’s start with the typical profile of the early stage software company founding CTO:

  • Inexperience: Founding CTOs tend to be inexperienced in general. They often learn as they go along, hopefully by leveraging an experienced CTO mentor.
  • Lack of breadth and/or depth in functional expertise: To be a true CTO, one has to be a generalist… and one has to have a senior management team that covers the depth of functional expertise (product management, product development, product interface/user experience). In start-ups, the CTO tends to be the lone manager, with a bunch of developers reporting to him. This forces the CTO to wear the various functional hats all at once, which means he is not really able to give any one of those functions its justice. As a result, the founding CTO tends to gravitate towards his functional DNA (i.e. the experience base he already possessed), while performing a mediocre job with the others.
  • Introversion: Because the CTO has to wear (among others) the product development managerial hat, he often spends most of his time at the office with the development team. This invariably comes at the expense of wearing the product management hat… which comes at the expense of being out in the field engaging with prospects and customers. Hence, the founding CTO tends to be introverted, relying on incoming customer/market signals through the support team, the sales team and being involved in sales/support calls. I have indirectly written about this issue here “Why SaaS Companies Suck at Making Usable Products.

When the start-up software company arrives at the expansion stage, and as the company grows in staff and customers, a senior management team needs to develop. As the CEO looks to build his senior team, so does the CTO.

But letting go is hard to do for the founding CTO. Let’s examine why…

EGO… As hard as is it is for the founding CEO to cede control to a senior management team, it is doubly hard for the founding CTO. At least the CEO can still act like a CEO (he’s still the boss!) But the founding CTO ceding control to a VP of Product Development and a VP of Product Management begs the question:

“What am I going to do then???”

My answer is:

“Anything you want to do… There’s a ton of work still to be done!”

Making an impact as a CTO does not end when you hire a senior management team. In fact, just as in the case of the CEO, it frees you up to do what can strategically impact your company… and frees you up to do what you enjoy doing the most.

So before we talk about what the founding CTO can do next, let’s make sure we understand what the senior folk he’s hiring will be doing:

  • Head of Product Management: effectively takes over the product from the CTO and sets the product management process. The product manager needs to own the product. Therefore, the CTO needs to let go of the baby to the product manager. And the product manager must not report to the CTO! Rather, he should report to the CEO. More on that in a near future blog post.
  • Head of Product Development: helps the product manager discover what it would take to build what the PM wants to build… and once the product backlog is prioritized, he manages the team that will build what has been prioritized. The VP of PD reports to the CTO.
  • Head of UI/UX: could report to the CTO or the product manager. Either way, the UI/UX guy needs to be locked at the hip with the PM. He is responsible for prototyping all the ideas of the PM, and makes sure that the new products/features have been vetted by customers before they are built by the development team.
  • Head of IT/Operations: Assuming you have an SaaS solution, there’s invariably a data center and IT infrastructure that needs to be managed. This position reports to the CTO.

So what does the founding CTO do next?

  • Manage: He needs to make sure he has recruited, on-boarded and mentored his senior management team. This includes making sure they are all marching towards a common goal, are properly tooled and resourced, and are generally happy and meeting their commitments. Yes, the CTO needs to manage… Yuck!!!
  • Research: How about becoming the long term product visionary? While the product manager(s) is(are) thinking of current markets and current market needs, the CTO can look further ahead and envision future markets, future customer needs, and future product capabilities. This brings us to the CTO forming and driving the often neglected Research component within R&D.
  • Strategic Business Development: Identify strategic product integration opportunities that can lead to the opening up of new solutions, new markets, or new distribution channels.
  • Hit the Road, Jack: Become the technical evangelist for the company. Whether it is evangelizing to prospects, customers, analysts or strategic partners, early stage companies can always use more and more customer facing senior managers in the field.

The list goes on and on.

The key here is for the founding CTO to stop acting like a CTO, and pick a role he can sink his teeth into. The key is for the CTO to hand off product to the product manager, or become the product manager himself (for real). And the key is for the CTO to find something he’s passionate about to do in his new role, whatever it may be.

The Chief Executive Officer

Firas was previously a venture capitalist at Openview. He has returned to his operational roots and now works as The Chief Executive Officer of Everteam and is also the Founder of nsquared advisory. Previously, he helped launch a VC fund, start and grow a successful software company and also served time as an obscenely expensive consultant, where he helped multi-billion-dollar companies get their operations back on track.
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