I’m not exactly sure when the trend started, likely as an offshoot of the first Pre-Bubble Technology Startups being headed by an actual CTO who was tired of the corporate life. Regardless, you can’t blink today without some Startup advertising for a Jack of All Trades CTO. The following is from a job posted just last week:
“We are seeking a player coach. Someone who can bring individual contribution while raising up and building a team. Individual contribution is essential by being a strong MS developer / architect. We also need someone who enjoys being in front of clients, having a seat at the management table, and is willing to place a bet on the future success of the entire organization.”
This reminds me of the time that my friend tried to save money when building his house. Instead of hiring an expensive General Contractor to run the construction, he instead found a talented carpenter to do it all. And while the guy knew his way with a hammer, he struggled with everything else. Instead of bringing in an Architect to design the house, he found some plans on the internet and used those. When clearing the lot, he accidentally dug up the water line for the entire neighborhood. The concrete foundation wasn’t exactly level, but he figured he could just take care of that with the framing. And while he was an absolute genius putting up the walls, he forgot to wire and plumb the house before he put the sheetrock up. Worst case of all, he forgot to get permits for anything and when the inspector finally showed up, he condemned the house and forced my friend to tear it down and start over.
It seemed like a smart move for my buddy. He got his house built for less than half of if he had gone the more expensive route. Unfortunately, he now has to pay double what it would have cost him in the first place. Half to build, half to tear it down, and then a whole to build it as it should have been built in the first place.
The point of this obviously fictional story is that a single person is not necessarily the best investment to solve all of the problems for a Startup, or for any other company for that matter. Hiring a person to be a CTO, Architect, Database Administrator, Systems Administrator, Security Expert, UX/UI Designer, Web developer, Back End Programmer, Sales Engineer, Mentor, Coach, Project Manager, etc. isn’t the best use of what limited money a Startup may have.
Before we discuss the solution, let’s examine the real problem in some detail: Startups have limited resources and are trying to maximize their return with as little a commitment as they can. Those without a Technical Cofounder (and many with) need someone who can set the technical direction of the company. But at the same time they need someone to do the coding as well. Preferably, this person can also help raise funds with investors. Regardless, in a Startup, there are lots of hats to be worn.
So, the Startup has a need for Technology. Searching for someone who can fill that role is often a frustrating endeavor even to those of us with years of experience doing it. Finding just one person to fill one of the multiple roles needed can take significant time. And Technical Startups have several roles at a minimum that they need to fill. They need someone to develop/create the software, someone to set the direction (roadmap) for that software, someone to maintain and support that software, and someone to deploy/host that software. That’s at a minimum. Add a few customers and then you’ll add Customer Support and Quality Assurance to that list, not to mention security and reliability. It is an impossible point for a Startup to be. They need a small army of people to fill roles that will at best be part-time until they pick up some momentum. So instead they look to find a single person with all of those needs.
That tactic just isn’t realistic. The likelihood that a Startup with find an Idiot Savant with all of those skills is like winning the lottery. Twice. So, most Startup’s settle, usually finding a talented software developer and throw the title their way, hoping that the person will grow into it. And while this has happened before, it is a rarity. Have you purchased your PowerBall ticket yet? The good news is that Startups have the right general idea - the most important hire that they will make is the CTO. Let’s discuss that a little.
A Chief Technology Officer or a Chief Information Officer, or whatever variation on that title you chose, isn’t someone with 3-5 years of coding experience and a nice smile. A Technology Executive is someone who has spent the better part of their lives learning everything they could about technology. To become Chief, they have spent countless hours doing their particular flavor of Technology (Coding, Infrastructure, Security, etc.) and have dabbled in all of the other forms of Technology. The evolution from doer to thinker always includes a full suite of non-technical skills. Technical knowledge isn’t enough, good Chief’s have the ability to manage people and teams, and serve as both personal and professional mentors, and have the ability to easily communicate with the most technical of personnel as well as the most non-technical customer or investor. And most importantly, a Chief must absolutely have the ability to see the big picture and see how all parts of it fit together: people, process, and technology.
Any CTO must be a problem solver. While that person may not be able to roll up their sleeves and code away the problem, they are extremely adept at knowing how to solve the problem, and perhaps more importantly, who can solve the problem. A resourceful CTO is worth their weight in gold as they can eliminate problems before they get out of hand. While most developers/admins tend to be myopically focused on specific problems they are not equipped to see the forest and can only see the trees. CTO’s use that singular focus from their team members to solve problems while simultaneously preparing to solve the next problem that comes up. A developer turned CTO rarely has that skill.
The downside of all of this experience that is needed by a Startup is that it gets expensive quick. The median salary for a CTO in Atlanta, GA (according to Salary.com) is $211,666 and that isn’t including the extra benefits that are typically afforded to the top Technology Executive. Following my previous logic of needing several roles for a Startup to get going, that would mean that a Startup would need easily over half a million dollars to just get started. That is a deal killer and perhaps the real reason why Startups look for the proverbial Unicorn.
So what Startups do is convince a young up and coming programmer to take a much lower salary in exchange for the “CTO” title. Startups are about risk, and they understand that this person may not be who they need to get them to the growth stage, but it is what they need to just get started.
So understanding the problem should help us solve it. A Startup needs several highly focused roles, but can’t afford to pay for several people to do the work. The solution is actually quite simple and almost always overlooked. What Startups need are a part-time CTO. While I’m quick to point out that part time programmers usually don’t work, part-time CTO’s work well. Whereas a part time Programmer often struggles splitting their time between projects (not all of them, I know some superstar consultants who do this in their sleep), a part-time CTO is already a master at splitting their time among the most important needs in their professional life. Frankly, most Startups really only need a CTO for a few hours a week.
A part-time CTO can help set the direction of the software and create the Product Roadmap. They should have a large network of software programmers, system administrators, etc. and can help identify personnel needs quickly and help to identify the right person for the right job. They should be able to keep the development on track and should be able to identify processes to streamline the deployment, maintenance and support of the software. And they should be able to do this while saving the Startup money since they are only working when needed. This allows the Startup to find other full time resources at a more manageable rate and allows them to focus on the job at hand instead of being unfocused on all issues. It’s a Win-Win for Startups.
Now obviously, there are always individuals who break the stereotype. I know that there is a hands on CTO out there that loves to write and deploy code while dealing with customers and working on elevator pitches, and who is willing to do it all for little to no money. And while you search for this person just keep buying lottery tickets. Or find a part-time CTO and get started today!