What Should a Fresh CTO Do?

As a CTO, you have grown to know a lot about technology stacks, problem solving and other useful stuff. But what about managing teams or even a business?

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Being a CTO is a point of arrival in many career paths. Taking that role inside a 20+, or larger, company is obviously more challenging than starting from scratch in a start-up, but the basics don’t change: a CTO is always the trait-d’union between technology, business, and teams.

It is particularly interesting to recap a set of hard and soft skills for a first-time CTO, in both what s/he has to do and what s/he doesn’t have to.

It’s hard to say what is the very first task to accomplish when you are a fresh CTO. The CEO’s and customer’s needs are priorities for you, and you can’t overcome the developers’ team.

One of the most frequent pieces of advice is to specify the requirements and the CTO’s role points with your peers in your own words.

In order to do this, you need a four-step approach. Every company needs a different CTO. You should first make your own plan in list 1; second, directly ask your peers what they expect from you in list 2; in the third one, match list 1 and 2 to get the final list of your requirements and responsibilities as a CTO; fourth, read the final list to all of your peers.

Set up a meeting for that, ask them questions and note down their answers, then read your final notes to them. Later, when you are on your own, clearly write the final points in a way it will be easy for you to read.

Finally, once your mind is clear, set up a second meeting to recap and collect their final remarks. Here, make sure to judge the good additional points from the superfluous ones or you might end up with an endless list.

If your CEO is the only member of the board, then just speak to the CEO and ask him what are the company’s business objectives: you have to understand and share his vision through targets, resources, and objectives.

Also, make sure you also meet the CFO periodically. He/she is the one who measures results, so planning together the forthcoming three months is a good practice.

Whether you are presented with many goals or one only, talking to your peers is an important part of your new role. You should choose to set a report meeting with all of them — you can also decide to break it down into smaller, or one-to-one, meetings.

Teamwork is the foundation of every startup. Nobody tells you this, but team management is an unwritten responsibility of the CTO.

Work to understand the decisions and motivations of relevant persons or teams that are directly linked to your responsibilities. Think of them as a developing team.

You can start with your employees CVs. Check what experience and skills they say they have, verify it, find where they overrated or underrated themselves, where they should improve or update, and what is really relevant to the company’s goals. Your team must constantly match the company’s needs.

Satisfaction is the keyword to reach this goal. Your team members should work well, being paid what’s right, and work well together. Look closely at these points, talk to people, control their results on their assigned projects.

You have to manage them, not micro-manage them, so respect their way of dealing with technical and personal problems, and mark their weaknesses. Don’t compete with them: if in your previous career you had a lower role, stop doing that and become a full-fledged manager. In particular, if you were a software developer, don’t be it anymore and don’t code against your employees.

The five w’s that make a communication clear are a fundamental need for great company members to push all in the same direction. We are talking about What, Why, Where, hoW, and When. Ignoring how your company describes its goals in terms of these five golden points, or not being updated on them, creates the company a bunch of problems: programming mistakes, unuseful meetings, wrong customer communications, and many other cases.

The correct approach to avoid this issue is communication. First, the teams (developers, marketing, sales, etc) must regularly report to the management; second, the management must organize broader meetings, some of which with a final Q&A session.

It is more difficult to master these flows when your company is a small start-up. Most people believe that everybody knows everything when you work in a small group, but this is normally false. There is a need for explicit information control in small companies too.

A C-level manager needs to manage people in an articulated way. Often, in fact, addressing the solution directly can raise a conflict. Let’s make a common example.

Suppose you see a problem with timing. The usual, direct question would be “Will you meet the deadline?”. This could be felt like a direct attack, so consider using smoother alternatives, such as “I like your idea, but pay attention to the deadline” or even making a grimace without saying anything. But if there is really the need to say that something won’t work, you have to say it clearly and straight. Be ready to mediate or delay in case a conflict arises, but be straight.

Technology, business, and collaboration are the bread and butter of every CTO. ICT can be one of or the main technology; business management can come from formal education or an on-field approach; communication can be mostly with the other C-level executives, among your teams or inside community-related social media and events, but an average CTO must be good at all of these things at the same time.

Do never under evaluate the importance of the business theory: it’s where most often a CTO’s fails and his career stops.

Talking about underevaluation, but going back to technologies, there is something that must be strongly underlined: cyber protection. This is an absolute need if you want to build a rock-solid business. Cyber Protection is your best insurance against your future, and this is true not only inside the ICT business but for every business, stating that the digital paradigm is the most important infrastructure.

So the role of a CTO is to stay updated and update the whole company on these subjects. You have to consider this not as a picture, but as a video. Some questions might help. Are we following the right path for every technology we need? Do we still understand current customers’ needs? Do I have proper education for this new way to approach business? Will these points be important in the medium-to-long term? A good choice today could be a failure tomorrow. The vision of a CTO should consider each technology not only from the standalone standpoint but from a systemic standpoint. we don’t fear innovation but disruption, that never makes only one technology victim but usually asks for the rethinking of more than one part of the process. Not being ready to rethink processes could be your final mistake, in today’s fast-paced industry.

A final way to summon a fresh CTO is to ask a senior CTO. A good way to match what has been said in terms of “do this and this” can be to add “don’t do neither this nor this”. Francis Nappez, CTO and co-founder of tech-enabled BlaBlaCar company, answered to an interview in 2019, based on a list of don’ts. It was May 2019. Some of his answers really complete this article.

Your role as a CTO is not so well separated from a normal contributor when you work in a start-up or a small business. A million different tasks from your theoretical duties arise at any moment and you have to take care of some of them. You have to be aware of theory but live in the reality: think like a true CTO, work as it’s needed in your present job, always be sure that communication was coherent, started well and arrived in full. The larger your company, the higher the degree of organization, the more of a C-level is your job. “You go from being a ‘doer’ to being a ‘leader’, where you have to make decisions and communicate them,” says the CTO of BlaBlaCar. “The team behind the project must understand why they are working on it, what the goal is, and then the rest will come easily.”

The role of the CTO is also cross-functional, apart from being the technological guy. If somebody needs to verify that everybody in the company is going in the right direction, he is the CTO. “You have to make listening to other teams a priority so that you can find out what is important and then see how you can help,” advises Nappez. This unwritten part of the job takes a long overall time.

This title reminds a common joke dedicated to everybody who thinks to be the only designer in the world. “Tech people have this intense desire to build everything themselves,” says Francis, but “Sometimes you have to trust other set-ups or services.” A periodic scan of what other people are doing in our direct field, but also in many others, is the only way to be aware of an already-existing solution to a problem we are facing now.

Assembling existing modules, or hardware parts, brings to your goal faster and cheaper than if you design everything at home. Many parts need to be customized or redesigned from scratch, but the overall management is much more effective if we can reuse the previous work of other designers.

This is the clearest explanation of why it is so important to participate in technical events such as meet-ups, conferences, and so on.

Remember that “our goal is to build only what others will not build for us.”

“Ceci tuera cela”, or in English “This will kill that”, is what Victor Hugo puts in the mouth of Quasimodo in his novel “The Hunchback of Nôtre Dame”. At the end of the Fifteenth century, Hugo/Quasimodo confronted the old world of cathedrals with the new technology of printed books.

This is a recurring pattern when a new advancement steps in.

“We sometimes believe we are building cathedrals, but life makes everything go so fast, and some creations become obsolete within a few months,” observes Nappez when remembering that time to market is where you create value to your customer and mine money for your company. Any technology improvement in itself is useless without a strong improvement in customer experience, and this is the final goal of every CTO.

You can read the orginal version of this article at Codemotion.com, where you will find more related contents. https://www.codemotion.com/magazine/dev-hub/cto/what-should-a-fresh-cto-do/

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