From developer to CTO: What is the fastest route?

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Most of the developers, sooner or later, think they are good and could thus aspire to a higher career point. The most common dream is becoming the CTO (Chief Technical Officer).

There is an almost “standard” path to become the CTO of an ICT company: Codemotion gave you a hint on what are the best routes in a previous article. To become a CTO you should first to complete your studies, in both technical and managerial fields. You can think the best way is having deep knowledge in computing science because if you want to be a Chief Technology Officer, the main issue is technology. Only after that you may want to take a deep master’s in business administration. But maybe you’re wrong.

The other path could then be taking the full bachelor in managing companies, and practicing coding maybe as a hobby and then going deep with an ICT-related master, so your main foundation will be management.

But if you already are a developer, most probably you’d take the first path. Being a good developer could be enough to let you guide other developers, but a CTO needs a much wider vision. You can’t reach that position without a strong business administration knowledge. Every knowledge can be acquired on-field, but a formal education helps so much.

Human skills are essential for CTO

We briefly described Management and ICT as the required skills to become a CTO. There is indeed a third branch of skills, competencies that are normally referred to as soft skills. Hard skills are ICT bricks, management, and analytical reasoning among others. A short list of soft skills, very relevant, comprises creativity, persuasion, and collaboration, as detailed here. Calling them “soft” diminishes their importance, putting the future CTO on a cul de sac way. That’s why Cate Lawrence suggests to include these skills in a broader category of the essential skills, as depicted in her article linked above.

So the starting point of this career is being a developer. But what kind of developer are you?

The three developer types

Let’s now see things from a different perspective than education. There are, in fact, many categories. Some of them are more suited than others to bring you to the desired CTO role. This is a kind of exercise you may do by yourself: search the Internet for one taxonomy of programmers’ types and see how much you recognize yourself in each of the proposed categories. You’ll better ask your friends and colleagues in which category they recognize you.

A nice three-part characterization comes from Kari McMahon in a post dated 2018:

“I don’t like programming, but I work as a programmer”

Her proposed taxonomy splits the devs’ population into three parts: the get-it-dones, the techies, The I-don’t-wants. Let’s see what they are and who’s best suited to become a CTO.

The Techy developer is sensitive to society’s expectations, adores programming, and lives for technical detail.

The Get-it-done dev is a problem solver: s/he persists and wants to achieve a goal.

There is a third category, as the post title suggests: the I-don’t-think-I-want-to-be-a-developer. S/he’s interested in tech, neither enjoying programming, nor being a natural problem solver.

Let’s give a closer look to the three categories and how they relate inside an organization.

The Get-it-done developer will probably never become a CTO unless he founds his company. S/he focuses on solutions more than on communication skills, so s/he will be too important to promote to high-level jobs and never supported by her colleagues and/or bosses.

The I-don’t-think-I-want-to-be-a-developer developer is a person who probably found it easy to write low-level code that was good enough to get a basic income from. S/he will probably surround in a short time, when the home expenses will mess her life.

The third kind of coder will never dream of being a CTO, while the other two can aspire to be promoted at least to Technical Lead, but with different probabilities to succeed.

The natural-born CTO is the first type, the Techy developer. S/he has a great sensitivity to non-business issues and deep attention to the details of business issues. S/he normally complements her job with her Get-it-done colleagues: they have different vocabulary and behaviors, but can fill these gaps and cooperate without competing. The Techy developer has a higher level of natural communicating skills than other programmers. Her/his interest in programming is often just due diligence before upgrading to a higher level.

What is a CTO?

It’s now time to define the arrival point of the career path we designed. A CTO is a C-level executive that makes her job and relates to all other business stakeholders. S/he has extensive knowledge in ICT and other technologies, a fine-grained sensitivity to the human aspects of all process deployments, and deep comprehension of all business aspects.

As a CTO, you must take accountable actions for your team, all C-levels, and your customer base. A CTO is able to manage disruption in an area directly related to the company’s core business. Her plan needs to be ductile to adapt to any change occurring with the various steps of the digital transformation. S/he should also take into consideration some what-if patterns for unpredictable scenarios. And this role is also constantly evolving.

As a possible outcome of his position as glue inside the company, a CTO is the C-level executive that more likely becomes a CEO. This step doesn’t occur any time, but is a frequent bonus to the career path. It’s not that easy.

The shortest path to become a CTO

Assume that you are currently a Technical Lead in your company. Your ICT knowledge and soft skills make you a good choice for a career advancement. Your goal is still to become a CTO in a shorter time than the “official” way. You are improving your business and social competences in your spare time.

You feel ready for a new advancement. You have three choices: open your business, be advanced once more, or rent your knowledge.

1. Make your brand-new company from scratch

The shortest possible path is to be the boss and choose yourself as the CTO. This means that you found a company together with some partners -there is not the need to be all long-time friends- and build everything from scratch. This company can be either a small business or a start-up: in both cases, you’ll face the need for financing your activity with money coming from various sources, including founder’s cash, founders’ friends’ and relatives’ cash, public grants (local, nationwide, or global), prizes, crowdfunding, and venture capitals.

Obviously a start-up could be run from an inexperienced management team, but we assume this is not the case for our story, when your career started as a developer.

Considering all possibilities you can also buy an existing company, choosing a business whose structure and staff most resemble what you think is good. But this choice requires that you have a huge quantity of money to invest, a chance that young developers rarely have.

If you choose the fast track, there is the one-million downside: one million things to do at a time, one million new responsibilities. That’s what you’re making this for, sure, but not everybody can challenge all this since the beginning. So be prepared to fail without fear: you’ll have to lose, more than once, during your career.

2. Being promoted

There are many roles in the big developers’ families. Assuming you are good enough, you should see how to be promoted as Technical Lead. While perfecting and updating your skills, you study business management (very focused on your company’s business) and improve your communication skills inside the company, over the Internet (social networks), and inside software communities. It’s not easy to do all this at the same time, if you have a private life especially, but you need it if you want to become the boss.

Any advancement in your career can happen both inside your company or in a different company. That is one of the reasons why you need to spend a long time on the main specialized social networks and in community events. These are the places where you open your mind and let people know who you are, just in case they need you.

You are still a very good developer, you take care of all projects inside the company, for both time and money when you become Technical Lead.

But this is an intermediate step, not an arrival point, for you. You want to be a CEO, so you have to show your bosses your technical mastery and your communication skills. Then there is to wait for your chances to become reality. Or not…

3. Sum up many short experiences

A tendency that from time to time springs out in company management is to get from outside a temporary technical competence. Outsourcing has always been a resource, and now this paradigm is applied to technology. Taken from some marketing names for cloud services, this tendency is called “CTO as a service”, or CTOaaS. It covers basic business requests coming from companies whose core business is not in ICT: using CTOaaS, they can simply buy consultancy to start with, thus avoiding one more C-level executive in the board of directors. In Europe, you can think of such a tendency also for GPRS-related positions: they are mostly legal consultants in those cases, but many of them -if not all- have a good knowledge of ICT and a previous experience about digital technologies.

You can profit from these possibilities in two ways: directly, as a consultant, or indirectly, through a company. You’ll make good CTO experiences in both ways.

Many consulting companies are offering this kind of service, in many regions of the world. A simple search on the Internet will sort out a long list of companies providing this service, as other possibilities (even financing). You can find them not only in an English-speaking environment: a french-speaking opportunity, for instance, is here. They probably hire Technical Leads or small business CTOs. This is a good chance to make valuable expertise to become a full-fledged CTO in a short time.

While working for them, you’ll have to step-up your online social activity and your time inside the tech communities. You’ll have to make presentations about what you study or work on, and probably publish all your contents on a guru or tech blog. You could even find it useful for your career to start a newsletter.

Against all odds

Experience wins against all odds, especially with revolving times. The traditional education path can prove itself as over-dimensioned for today’s defies and very heavy to allow for agility in the decision path. This doesn’t mean that there is a shorter list of pieces of knowledge and experiences, but only that to be suitable as a CTO, you have to study in shorter and less structured times and be prepared to face many challenges that your older colleagues did not face. But this is the time, so speed up and keep the pace!

You can read the orginal version of this article at, where you will find more related contents.




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