The Evolving Role of a CTO: From Coding to Leadership

· 3 min read
The Evolving Role of a CTO: From Coding to Leadership

I’ve been working as a CTO on various projects for many years, and I recently realized how my perception of what a CTO does has evolved over time.

In my early years, I thought that a CTO was the smartest tech person in the team, making all the important tech decisions. As I gained experience, I discovered this was far from true. There are tech leads, architects, system analysts, and many others who might be smarter than the CTO. If the CTO is the smartest person in the room, then perhaps something is wrong with the team.

In reality, at least on my team, a CTO embodies a bit of everything. The role requires extensive technical knowledge and insight about all layers of a product, but relies heavily on others’ expertise in decision-making. This makes a CTO much more of a manager than just a technical person.

A Story to Illustrate

Robert E. Norton, former CTO of Procter & Gamble, once shared a story that resonates with my experiences. During his tenure, he faced a colossal decision to modernize the company’s technology landscape. It wasn’t just about implementing new systems; it was about convincing stakeholders, aligning with the business goals, working with various teams, and ensuring a smooth transition.

He took the time to understand the existing systems, met with stakeholders, and understood the concerns of various team members. Like flying a plane mid-air and fixing it, he had to ensure the modernization didn’t disrupt the ongoing processes. His leadership, ability to work with people, and understanding of both technical and business aspects were crucial in achieving this transformation.

It wasn’t without its hiccups, but it serves as an excellent example of what a CTO’s role can encompass. It’s not just about being the tech-savvy person in the room; it’s about leadership, strategic thinking, people management, understanding the business, and taking responsibility.

The People Skills

For a manager, people skills are paramount. The CTO’s job involves building and relying on a team to construct and maintain products. It’s about orchestrating who does what and when, strategically. While product managers concern themselves with the “why” and “what” of a product, the technical manager must determine the most efficient way to accomplish goals in coding, both today and in the future.

A Day in the Life

So, what does a CTO do day-to-day? Well, in my team, it’s mostly meetings. Meetings with stakeholders to discuss strategy, with product owners to explore the technical roadmap, with tech leads to find the best construction methods, and with other managers to improve processes. It’s a whirlwind of interaction and collaboration.

Hiring and Retaining Talent

Moreover, the CTO’s role involves hiring and retaining talent, deciding on team structure, defining the technical culture, and enforcing best practices. Deciding on hiring strategies, skillset requirements, screening methods, onboarding processes, and trial periods is a complex task.

The same goes for retaining talent. Non-technical people may not understand what different experience levels require for prolonged engagement. It’s not always about money; many tech companies offer handsome compensation packages. Senior team members may crave complex tasks, middle-level developers need growth opportunities, and junior members need simpler tasks and ample coaching.

The Strategic Aspect

This leads me to the strategic part of the role. Every tech project that survives a few years will face myriad challenges that need to be addressed. I like to compare it to flying a plane that must be constantly upgraded and repaired mid-air, but in such a way that it keeps flying smoothly. The CTO’s daily battles include technical debt, feature creep, overengineering, rolling out breaking changes, and updating large chunks of code in a live system.

Decisions on Technology

Deciding on technology is also pivotal. There are numerous approaches, languages, libraries, and third-party tools to choose from, and these decisions must be revisited regularly. There are also many trade-offs that a CTO needs to know how to make, considering both immediate needs and future consequences.

The Responsibility

But above all, the CTO takes responsibility. Resolving disputes, seizing opportunities, solving problems, guiding others — these all fall within the realm of CTO.

Should a CTO code? I believe that even in a small company, the workload may be too much to allow coding regularly. But staying up to date with recent developments, such as AI and frameworks like LangChain, is vital.

A Complex Role

Being a CTO is indeed complex. Many developers are reluctant to switch from coding to managerial roles, and I understand why. The software developer’s job is already hard, stressful, and exhausting. A CTO’s role takes that stress and multiplies it, adding managerial responsibilities and endless meetings. It’s a challenging sell, and perhaps that’s why we don’t see many truly exceptional CTOs.

However, for those who embrace the challenge, the CTO’s role offers a fulfilling and rewarding career path, where the impact goes beyond code and extends to shaping teams, products, and ultimately the future of technology. It’s an ever-evolving journey, one that I’m still exploring and learning from every single day.

Originally published on Medium.com