What Makes a Good Startup CTO: Top 7 Qualities

by Sandra Petrova

8 min read · Feb 28, 2020

Maybe you're an ambitious developer who wants to know how to become a good Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Or maybe you've been promoted to a CTO role in your startup and need tips for improvement.

Have you ever wondered: What are the characteristics of a good CTO? Is a CTO someone who watches over the code? Are they some type of super manager or super hacker?

In short, a good CTO is someone who is both a developer and who holds a leadership role. They have excellent technical and soft skills. Their qualities are intricate and include:

Extensive technical knowledge

The art teacher understands art. The copywriter is creative with words. Similarly, the CTO possesses an exceptional technical CTO skill set. 

A good CTO is well-versed in technology. They would have accumulated vast technical experience by having worked on different levels of development and have dealt with many challenges. 

They would know the different programming languages, their major uses with pros and cons. Only by having this knowledge would a CTO be able to lead a team. 

We're not trying to say that they have to be the smartest people in the world. But they have to be one step, two steps, three steps ahead of the engineering team when it comes to technical knowledge. They must understand the technology as it is evolving and how that technology suits the team. 

To me, what makes a strong CTO is the amalgamation of a lot of specific qualities. One important quality is capturing the respect and admiration of the technical staff in the company. This is often incredibly hard to do without being a skilled developer. The respect that comes from sitting down next to someone who is stuck on a coding problem and helping them work through it to resolution. The other main key to being a great CTO is being able to build a technical vision for your organization and getting the buy-in of everyone on the team. Convincing an entire team or organization to all move in the same direction not because they're told to but that they choose to is something few leaders can pull off, and takes an incredible amount of charisma and conviction. 

- Dominic Holt, CTO Valerian Technology

When you're a doctor, patients expect you to be up-to-date with the latest developments in the medical world so that you can offer them the most innovative care. 

In the same way, developers expect their CTO to have an excellent technological insight to recognize when a new programming language, tool, or development methodology is worth exploring.

By staying current with the latest developments, a CTO can forecast where the business can be in a few years and what technologies can take it there. 

By ongoingly monitoring the changing world of technology, the CTO can make the startup competitive, efficient, and scalable. 

startup CTO

Good communication skills 

How do you inspire developers to be better performers or convey an issue to the CEO? How do you convince a client that the project is going smoothly? 

You possess excellent communication skills. 

And when we say, communication skills, we mean the whole range, including verbal, written, and non-verbal communication. 

Being a CTO doesn't mean being the most talented developer on the team. It's the person with the best communication skills. 

For example, a CTO has to know how to speak in a technical language to developers. Similarly, they have to know how to talk in a business language to clients. 

Whether it's emails, chatting on Slack, video conferencing on Zoom, or talking face-to-face, the communication skills of a CTO have to be extensive and exceptional.

Simply put, a good CTO wants to listen to customers, and even better, a good CTO will do at least an hour of live chat support every day. That's what our CTO does, and he's the best I've ever worked with. He never loses empathy for the end-user and the customer, which helps him understand why the technology he is building is so important.

- Bryan Clayton, CEO of Your Green Pal

Knowing who to hire

The talent shortage is a serious problem. More companies are looking for talent than qualified candidates are looking for new job opportunities.

As qualified candidates are so rare, it's only natural for the CTO to participate in the hiring process for the development team. They should possess the skills of knowing who would be an excellent cultural fit and who has the right skills for the company.

A good CTO can put together an amazing engineering team. They should possess the skills to attract, retain, and inspire the best talent. What's more, they should be able to recognize talent. For example, recognize that even though a specific developer doesn't have vast experience, they would make a great employee in the long-term.

For many CTOs, a good cultural fit is highly relevant. They have to be sure that the person they're hiring will be working with the rest of the team in the right way. This is especially important for startups as they don't have the resources to hire a bad employee.

Many CTOs would be hunting for skills like:

  • Reliability.
  • Motivation.
  • Experience.
  • Being willing to learn new things.
  • Being honest about what they don't know and confident in what they know.
  • Accepting challenges.

Team management

The development team is the biggest asset a company has. 

Some teams get along well, while others might be dealing with interpersonal issues. If this happens, the CTO is the one to deal with the negative situations that might involve:

  • One developer having issues with another developer.
  • A particular developer not being a team player.
  • An employee having an issue with motivation and performance.

The CTO has to have solid team management skills. They must think about the team as a system and think of ways of optimizing the system. Being a leader involves optimizing their happiness, productivity, and motivation.

Moreover, an essential part of a CTO's role is providing the team with the right toolset. Whether it's programming tools, project management tools, or deployment tools, it's the CTO's responsibility to pick the tools that will help a team make progress. 

how to became a good CTO in a startup

Knowing your priorities

A good CTO should know when they should code and when they should invest more time in managing the team. 

Sometimes, coding would be the most critical thing, and developers would require help. Other times, the CTO would be involved in bringing coding decisions instead of doing coding explicitly.

This largely depends on the size of the team. If it's a team of four, then the CTO would likely do coding, at least some portion of the time. If it's a larger team, chances are developers would be doing most of the coding while the CTO ensures quality control and offers support from the sidelines. 

Strategic mindset

Instead of seeing the tree, the CTO must see the forest. In other words, a CTO is a strategic visionary. They must see the bigger picture of what the company is moving towards and how it can get there.

As a result, they would spend a lot of time reading about new business models and technologies. They will analyze the competitors and draft a technology strategy on how the company can reach its business goals and stay ahead of the competition. 

To disrupt markets, a startup must have disruptive ideas. The source of those ideas is usually the development team, with the CTO in charge. A good CTO would hire exceptional developers, create a culture of motivation, and encourage the sharing of ideas. 

Conclusion

Whether you're ambitious to become a CTO or have been recently promoted to a CTO role, hopefully, this post gave you valuable information.

Remember that a CTO is a leadership position above all. If you believe that you have what it takes to lead an engineering team and drive a company forward with a great vision in mind, then, by all means, try hard to achieve your goals. 

Good luck!

Do you have any other tips for how to be a good CTO in a startup to add to our list? Leave your comment below because we'd love to hear your thoughts.


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FAQs

Q: What makes a good startup CTO?
A good startup CTO possesses a mix of technical and soft skills. He/she is a great coder, and at the same time, he/she has solid leadership skills. 
Q: What skills should a CTO have?
  1. Extensive technical knowledge.
  2. Staying up-to-date with tech trends.
  3. Good communication skills.
  4. Knowing who to hire.
  5. Team management.
  6. Knowing your priorities.
  7. Strategic mindset.
Q: What should a CTO do?
A CTO examines the short- and long-term needs of a company. They have a strategic planning role and lead the engineering department. They are expected to develop strategies for increasing revenue and performing cost-benefit analysis.
Q: Who does CTO report to?
In startups, a CTO usually reports directly to the CEO. In larger companies, a CTO might report to another executive, such as a GM. 
Q: How long does it take to become a CTO?
To become a CTO, a person must assume different positions along the way. The minimum period of advancing to a CTO role is a decade. But it's not uncommon for some people to have an atypical career progression and to be promoted directly to a senior role at their first company.