You are not a CTO (yet).

A Chief is the leader of a tribal society. In Scottish clanns, the principal function of the chief was to lead his clan in battle on land and sea. All Chiefs need to be great communicators. They need to communicate a common purpose and rally their tribe to fulfill that purpose. They are often judges and arbiters. Their judgment can not only satisfy the moment — just is not always fair — but they must also consider effects for the future of the tribe.

A VP of Finance, for example, is doing all the necessary financial house keeping, making sure payroll is on time, loans are taken care of, cash flows are under control, basic 6 months forecasts are met, and all backward-looking statements are in order for investors to inspect. A CFO is strategically planning at least 12-24 months ahead. She understands strategic options, valuation impact and shareholder perspective; she foresees structural changes for the company and how to work with the rest of the executive team to support their vision.

Likewise, a VP of Engineering in early days of a startup is building out the initial core team and creates a working prototype of your imagined first product, and maybe — together with sales, marketing, and the CEO — even the first product. You will be thinking about general feature roadmap and plan sprints for the next few releases. You might call yourself a CTO, but your not one, yet.

CTO is strategically planning at least 12-24 months ahead. She might be thinking about how to create a common platform for a variety of products to be launched and how they interact with each other. She will have to stay up-to-date on bleeding edge technologies as tech stacks evolve and make strategic decisions about when and how to replace key technologies. She will have to assess current skill sets of the engineering team, understand where the company is heading in the next 2-4 years, and think about how to change that organization while the company is growing at 200-400% every year in engineering headcount (!).

A CTO is probably much more hands-off on day-to-day engineering than you think. If I would need to settle on ranking specific skills, then — as for all “Chiefs”! — it would be

  1. Communication. You will have to simplify and abstract technical and product challenges and ecosystem changes and communicate them to engineering, product, sales, marketing, CEO (!), and shareholders (!). Your findings and opinion will be used to execute necessary strategic course changes of the company. If you feel uncomfortable talking to any of these groups you’re probably not a CTO. You can feel uneasy about it, and it’s fine if it doesn’t give you immense please for one group or the other. But it will be your responsibility.
  2. Understand the Big Picture. You will need to understand the larger ecosystem impact of your observations and findings, from employees to vendors to partners to competitors to customers. You need to identify doors that a certain technology decision will close. How would a partner, for example, see your choice of using Go (hello Error Handling!) versus Erlang? Would a channel prefer OpenShift Origin or Red Hat OpenShift? How will these decisions impact current products and future products? How will your sales motion change?
  3. Understand your “tribe”. Because you are “leading your clan in battle on land and sea”, you really need to understand what motivates them, what politics are forming, what subgroups are thinking. This goes way beyond resource and skill management, sprints, and who-does-what.

As a CTO, you have to understand people, not just technologies.

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