What is the role of a CTO?

Posted on Categories Business, Startup, Technology

What is the role of a CTO? This might seem like an obvious question, but anyone in this role knows that its not as clear cut as other traditional roles such as CEO, COO and CFO.

I have done a lot of research on this topic to ensure I am always growing in my role. In doing research, I like to refer to people and companies I look up to, because for them to be successful, they must be doing something right!

I have always looked up to Amazon. They do things that you never expect them to do (selling books online, cloud computing?!?) and are very successful at it. Here is a very well written blog by Werner Vogels, CTO of Amazon, on the role of a CTO  http://www.allthingsdistributed.com/2007/07/the_different_cto_roles.html

He summarizes it well (please do read the article) as 2 types.

1) External Facing Technologist / Big Thinker

2) Infrastructure Manager / Technology Visionary and Operations Manager

For the readers of this blog (some who might not be technical) the first one is more product focused (figures out which products are working well with customers and which new ones to develop). The second one is pure technologist and implementer (actual does the coding and manages the day to day coding operations).

I love performing the role of the first type. I enjoy talking with customers and understanding their product needs. I really enjoy thinking about brand new products that strategically positions us to make the client happier and really innovate. I love figuring out what the tools are to make these happen. To be a good CTO product person (i.e. the external facing technologist / big thinker), you still need a good understanding of the underlying technologies and make decisions on these (i.e. the tools). For example lets say you decide to build a two storey house (your product) what type of foundation do you use? What combination mix of cement is appropriate for the climate that the house is going to be built on?

You need to understand what the limitations of your options are (will it support the house), if they make sense from a cost structure to your company (can you afford the cement), if you can hire developers in these technologies (are there contractors that know how to work with this type of cement), if the technology can support your future plan product growth (is the foundation strong enough to build more floors on). You need to make sure that you have a very smart team and structure underneath that understands the details of these individual technologies/tools. A cassandra expert (foundations) is much different than a javascript expert (exterior) is much different than a data scientist (interior). You need to rely on these specialist to give you ground level reports on the performance of these specialized technologies and make a decision whether it fits with the product vision. A computer science degree helps a great deal with this understanding (or in the case of house building an architecture degree)

Here is a post on Quora discussing this topic http://www.quora.com/What-is-the-difference-between-VP-Engineering-and-CTO

And another great post: http://members.founderdating.com/discuss/1601/What-are-the-differences-between-a-CTO-and-a-Software-Lead-at-an-early-stage-startup?ref=weekly-digest

A side note – as a Founder AND CTO – you have a LOT more things to do as well, but perhaps that is another blog post!!