Hiring a Startup CTO: When, Whom, and Where

a picture of a young man in a blue shirt illustrative of a startup CTO

This article answers three popular questions about the role of a startup Chief Technology Officer:

  • Does your startup need a CTO (yet)?
  • Who is a good fit to become your Chief Technology Officer?
  • Where can you find a CTO for your startup?

When to hire a CTO

The role of a CTO, or Chief Technology Officer, is native to big companies. The textbook CTO is predominantly a managerial role that is several strata removed from hands-on programming. This person is more of a visionary and a manager who understands how technology drives growth and innovation, and who is responsible for putting forth a strategy for it. The role involves a lot of research, decision-making, and delegation, and almost zero practical engineering.

When it comes to startups, the role of a CTO is very different (we’ll talk about that in just a bit). Plus, not every startup needs one – at least not right away. When you are just starting out, it’s better to look for a technical co-founder or an advisor who will help you decide which technical specialists you need to hire right away. They may also help you make those first hires.

During the MVP (minimum viable product) stage, it’s not uncommon for a startup to have only a handful of developers working on the first prototype. In this case, you will most likely need a Lead Developer to oversee the entire process. You may want to give that person the “CTO” title to woo the investors, but they may not be the right person for the job. Once you have an MVP and begin to raise funds, you may want to hire a proper CTO with a different skill set – someone with strategic vision who understands the business side as well as the technology side and can communicate effectively with VCs.

Conclusion: Try not to hire a CTO too early. A good time is after you have built the MVP but before you start any serious fund-raising.

Who will make a good startup CTO?

As we mentioned earlier, the CTO of a large company is not the same as the CTO of a startup. A startup CTO is expected to wear multiple hats and have a diverse set of competencies.

For example, a startup CTO is expected to not only be knowledgeable about a broad range of technologies, but also be heavily involved in product development. They should be able to internalize customer feedback and make decisions based on that.

It's very difficult to design something for someone if you have no empathy.

Stewart Butterfield, Co-founder, Flickr, Slack

The startup CTO should also be willing to challenge the status quo and suggest innovative approaches to building the product.

For example, I used Netflix back in the day when they were sending DVDs by mail. Had Netflix not turned to online streaming, it may not have become the company it is today. The fact that Netflix figured out how to build a reliable, low-latency streaming service was what made it the massive success that it is now.

So, the ability to innovate is also a key quality in a technical leader. Your CTO should be okay with venturing out of their comfort zone into uncharted territory.

Growth and comfort do not coexist.

Ginni Rometty, CEO, IBM

Many startup founders say that cultural fit is of utmost importance, as well. The founder and everyone else should get along well to work productively together. To develop that kind of rapport, shared values and similar worldviews help tremendously.

My biggest mistake is probably weighing too much on someone's talent and not someone's personality. I think it matters whether someone has a good heart.

Elon Musk, CEO, Tesla Motors

To sum it up, here are the main competencies a startup CTO should have.

  1. Has diverse technical skills (understands font-end, back-end, mobile, testing, security, the Cloud, integrations, big data, etc.)
  2. Is a good people manager (hires and mentors tech talent, organizes the development process according to their Agile methodology of choice).
  3. Understands customer needs (technical solutions are only as good as the value they bring to the customer).
  4. Inspires confidence in investors (the CTO is an “asset” that’s often scrutinized by investors/VCs).
  5. Promotes the employer band (hiring tech talent is super-hard, but it’s easier with a prominent CTO).
  6. Doesn’t shy away from hands-on work (a startup CTO often has to fill in for developers when there is a shortage of hands on deck).
  7. Has that entrepreneurial spirit.
  8. Shapes the technical vision for the product (considering all risks and opportunities).
  9. Thinks like a growth-hacker (the company may grow exponentially at some point, and the CTO should plan for this).
  10. Is a good cultural fit for the company.
Qualities of a startup CTO

Conclusion: The startup CTO is a T-shaped tech professional who, apart from their main duties, sometimes works as part-time QA, DevSecOps person, product manager, fund-raiser, and "developer brand" evangelist.

Where can you find a startup CTO?

Hiring into senior positions is never easy. And hiring a CTO is particularly tricky because good candidates are hard to find and are usually (happily) employed, which means they are not looking for a job.

At the same time, it doesn’t mean you won’t find someone who likes your business plan (because nobody cares about your idea, TBH), wants a more diverse range of responsibilities, doesn’t like their new boss, is interested in your generous equity offer, etc., etc. - it may be that stars become aligned in your favor.

So, where can you look for eligible candidates?

An obvious first step is to ask your network for recommendations. Then, besides asking around and doing things like reaching out to people on LinkedIn, you can check out the following places:

  • Co-founder groups on Meetup.com - Just look for relevant groups in your location and go to some networking events.
  • Startup-oriented events - It’s true that startup groups are designed for bringing together founders and investors. However, investors sometimes know technical professionals who could be good CTO candidates.
  • Tech conferences - IT conferences are places where you can spot senior engineers who might be interested in trying on the CTO role.
  • CoFoundersLab - It’s a platform for finding passionate, like-minded co-founders, technical or otherwise.
  • FoundersNation - It’s “a place to find or become a startup co-founder”.
  • AngelList - This site is part-LinkedIn, part-TechCrunch, and part-HackerRank. It allows you to network with people and create job postings, features startup news, and offers tools for evaluating applicants’ technical expertise.
  • Crunchbase people search - This functionality allows you to look for relevant people in your area by titles like “lead developer,” etc.
  • The Talent Hackers - This is an embeddable recruiting service geared towards startups that focuses on skills and culture and understands growing companies’ unique challenges.

Conclusion: in the end, it may not be about the places where you look, but about the value you bring to the table. A potential startup CTO wants proof that you are serious about this undertaking, and a good way to demonstrate that is to have made significant investment (monetary or temporal - as in “time”) into the startup prior to approaching prospective CTOs.

When the CEO is ready, the CTO comes.

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