The many roles of a Startup CTO:
Building the MVP (Minimum Viable Product):
Most people who want a technical co-founder probably to want someone to do this. Creating the first iteration of a Startup’s product usually falls to the CTO, and that makes a lot of corporate CTO’s really bad for the job. Big company CTO’s are usually 2 or 3 levels of management away from day-to-day engineering.
Hiring engineers, IT professionals, and data scientists:
finding and bringing on engineering talent is one of the hardest things for tech startups to do in 2018. The job market is really tight for employers right now (lots of demand for talent, only so many engineers) and hiring for cultural fit at a small startup is often a challenge. Many developers want to specialize while startups demand generalists.
Figuring out company-wide security:
A startup’s CTO will likely be the first team member to own security, run audits, document security procedures, and train everyone on the basics.
Most startups I’ve seen have a non-technical product manager and a de-facto technical project manager in their CTO. This usually means that while the CTO’s primary goal is to make the vision of the non-technical manager a reality, it also means that they’ve got to manage the flow of work into the engineering team.
Minimum viable products often suffer from incoherent, poorly evolved architectures. When the priority is to move fast and learn things, engineers may not have time to test everything and release a bug-free product much less refactor towards a centrally planned architecture.
That said, a good Startup CTO will recognize when poor architecture is slowing down the team and will step in to settle technical debt as needed. Eventually architecture may be passed off to senior engineers or dedicated teams, but it’s likely that this will fall to the CTO for a while at least.
Once again, a Startup’s CTO will pick up the slack here until they can hire a dedicated DevOps engineer to handle it.
Data science and machine learning:
Data science, machine learning, and AI are hot topics right now, but data scientists are a luxury that smaller start-ups usually cannot afford. Even if you can collect millions of data points, it’s useless without a CTO who can come up with a decent system for storing and accessing this data securely and quickly.
Overseeing the version 2.0:
At some point in a Startup’s life, it comes time to rebuild the MVP. Likely stretched way beyond its initial use case and struggling to keep up with a growing user base, the CTO must decide when it’s time to start replacing the old with something new and what that new something will be.
Team growth management:
Another reason that startup CTOs are rarely the same people who work as big company CTOs is that managing growth of technology team is really hard. At the beginning you can excite your employees by offering them cool projects with lots of unsolved technical challenges. As the team grows, the CTO will have to attract more specialized people with traditional benefits, vacation days, and a structured career ladder. Managing growth with 100 employees is totally different than managing growth with 5.
ech workers have options, so it’s rare to keep one for more than 2 or 3 years. That means that as a startup exits the “tiny startup” phase and enters the “mid-sized startup” phase it’s likely that the CTO will start dealing with some churn.
Early employees yearn for the excitement of their first months with the company and may start looking for new challenges or go found their own companies. The CTO who originally started building this thing alone in his apartment is now trying to convince his best talent to stay and minimize turnover.