The ins and outs of being a CTO are too numerous and varied to cover in a single article, so we decided to kick off a series exploring best practices, challenges, and pro-tips for the position. Future articles will get more granular and specific about the particulars of the role, while in this inaugural article, we’ll cover some of the most important things to keep top-of-mind when occupying this crucial and complex leadership position in a company. We gleaned these tips from conversations with Mission CTO and Co-Founder Fred Brunel. Fred has decades of experience in key positions at tech startups, moving from developer to director to Chief Technology Officer, learning hard-fought lessons along the way.
1. Know that your role is going to evolve.
In the beginning, you have to do a little bit of everything, but you also get to focus more on the technical side of things. You might be hands-on as a developer, simply because the company doesn’t yet have the personnel to delegate. For those who come from a technical background, this is their comfort zone, and you may want to stay settled in that spot forever. Be aware though that as CTO, your role is going to get increasingly involved with both the business end of things, as well as managerial tasks.
In short — you’re going to need people skills, and they can’t be learned by sequestering yourself somewhere with a stack of books and tutorial videos (though those can help a bit too). You’re going to need to have conversations with people who are more comfortable with dealing with people, their feelings and needs. Mentorship here can be extremely helpful, having conversations with those who’ve been through it before.
2. Explain tech in terms everyone can understand — and take time to get people up to speed.
You may hear from many CTOs the importance of being able to distill complex technical information into smaller bites more easily understandable to non-technical people. And on this point, Fred agrees. Early on in a startups life, “everyone’s in the weeds,” as he puts it, so everyone tends to know what’s going on with everyone else. But as you grow, “the technological side of things becomes more opaque.” Hence the need for the CTO to quickly breakdown what the developers are working on and why.
Fred’s unique suggestion is to invest more time in training people of ALL departments so they have at least a basic understanding of what goes into the code. For example, he’s looking into a coding bootcamp of sorts for all employees, so there isn’t a single person in the company who’s totally clueless about how even the simplest button on a website comes to be. Key here is the attitude that it’s the goal to get everyone on the same page. Too many technically minded people, when faced with the need to do so, default to the defensive position, “If you don’t get it, you’re just not smart enough.” Fred sees it as one of the CTO’s responsibilities to make sure everyone is informed enough to have at least a basic understanding of the tech.
3. If you’re delegating and scheduling right, you’ll have time for everything.
In early stage startups, there’s a lot of scrambling around to put out little fires and get to all the tasks that come from the “many hats” position founders tend to be in. It can be easy then to accept that one’s schedule is going to be too full to keep up with the latest trends in technology and business, as well as global issues, as well as keeping up with employees productivity and morale, as well as life outside of the office. Putting aside whether or not this is healthy even early on — though it may be necessary — as a company grows, it’s not advisable to hang onto this “I’m always too busy” grinding mindset.
“What you don’t want to do is micromanage,” Brunel says, “By trying to be involved in every single thing going on, you end up missing a lot.” Instead, he recommends scheduling realistically and efficiently, delegating as needed to those competent enough to execute tasks on their own. “Then, you have to trust them and let them work.”
If you delegate wisely to capable individuals, this frees up the CTO to stay on top of critical trends, shifts, and movements in both technology and business that can have a vital impact on the direction the company should be headed. It also means more time to check in with employees to make sure everyone is productive and satisfied with their work — note, this is distinct from the micro-managerial urge to do all their work for them.
4. It starts with hiring.
It’s worth doubling down on this one — in order for a CTO to execute their job effectively, they need to start by hiring the right people for every position. While no one comes into any role perfect, it’s key to hire those who “get it”. What do they get exactly? According to Fred, it’s the vision of the company, as well as how their contributions fit into the efforts of the whole team. In short, they’re people who inspire trust, which means the CTO can justifiably leave them to execute while they put their energy into the overall technological execution and business direction of the company.
5. Hang onto your vision.
“Your vision shouldn’t change,” says Brunel, “If it changes too much, you’re building a different company.”
When Brunel, along with Stephane Rossi and Gabriel Sundaram, founded Mission, they set out to “build a machine that assembles teams” while being a totally new talent marketplace. When they started, they saw that while providing remote teams, clients had questions about productivity, transparency, data and metrics, to reveal that the teams they hired were working well. They decided to build that into Mission, but this was “expanding” and refining on the initial vision, not abandoning it.
Making your vision a reality “is not linear,” says Brunel. There are bound to be surprises along the way. But part of being a great CTO means keeping the company on track to manifest the initial idea, and not lose it chasing the latest tech trends or market memes. Brunel advises being flexible and adaptable, but to have agreement early on upon what the enduring goals of the venture are, and use them as north star through the winding road to make a dream a reality.
6. Don’t try to solve too much upfront.
According to Brunel, a great CTO doesn’t try to solve too many predicted problems upfront. While it’s tempting to safeguard against any hazard a CTO can envision, allocating too many resources toward failsafes to every possible obstacle you might encounter will put the company in a position where their initial point of inspiration is watered down, and without enough resources to adapt and evolve as new issues arise.
“You’re not in the aviation industry,” says Brunel, “where you choose one design of a plane to study for the next 10 years.” When concepts move to actual products, you’re going to learn something every day, so you have to be ready to iterate.
A great CTO is adroit at predicting how things may go, but they’re not fortune tellers. Being skilled at adjusting to the market is just as important as having a honed sense for how it might go.
7. Implement well and make time for methodology.
“A lot of developers are scared of Jira because they’ve been burned by it before. But that speaks more to a bad methodology behind implementing it, not a bad product,” says Brunel, to illustrate the importance of executing plans mindfully.
Brunel has had experiences in which his managers were resistant to take time and resources to train and coach, even though employees were not grasping a new system. “After arm wrestling for a while, we had a 3 day training session with coaching, and at the end, it was eye opening for everybody.”
While some may feel methodology is an abstraction that can be circumnavigated through more concrete actions, Fred has seen the chaos this can cause down the line, including faults with the product and confusing tickets. A great CTO knows how to get everyone on the same page from day 1, and is willing to invest in resources to make sure it happens, so that their bigger picture strategies can roll out smoothly and accumulate the kind of momentum that has major impact and results.