A Chief Technology Officer (CTO for short) plays a vital part in every company. Though it’s not as high in the hierarchy as the CEO or COO, holding this title is still something to be proud of.

A startup CTO deals with multiple departments. These range from managing human resources to developing new technical strategies. Before the startup can afford more employees to handle these areas, they often fall to the CTO to deal with.

So what does a CTO do in a startup exactly? Unlike in regular companies, the job description differs a bit in startups. By the end of this article, you’ll know the true value of a CTO in the startup world.

Why does a startup need a Chief Technology Officer?

Nathan Blecharczyk, CTO at Airbnb

The main goal of the CTO in every company is technological advancement. But this means something different to startups. While established companies strive for long-term sustainability, startups focus on rapid growth.

To facilitate this rapid scaling, the CTO must develop a technology strategy that achieves precisely this goal.

But much like in the case of the COO, the CTO doesn’t have clearly defined duties. They evolve as the company grows. These duties also depend on the company’s existing capital and primary objective.

What does a CTO do in a startup? – 10 important tasks

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Startup CTOs must do everything in their power to help the company scale. Since they lead the company’s technology department, they must ensure the product is moving in the right direction.

They accomplish this in many ways. Below are the 10 most important tasks a good startup CTO must deal with:

Human resources management

A tech startup can’t thrive without skilled employees. It often falls to the CTO to hire and manage them. While it might sound simple, the task can be deceptively challenging.

Firstly, the most skilled candidates for the startup’s engineering team are often expensive. The better they are, the higher salaries they might request. But early on, a tech startup rarely has enough financial resources.

These programmers should often be well-versed in many different technology areas. However, most specialize in a single one.

The CTO must thus excel at attracting the best employees to the startup. As the boss of the development team, they must also do everything in their power to keep this talented personnel in the company.

Performance monitoring

As the head of the tech staff, the CTO must monitor the productivity of their employees. This means assessing the strong and weak points of the developers and then providing feedback.

A good CTO should also be open to suggestions. If one of the developers has a great idea, they should see if it can be implemented into the product.

Lastly, the Chief Technology Officer should provide motivation to their staff. The surest way to achieve this is by rewarding outstanding employees.

Improving the user experience

Nowadays, CTOs participate in business plan creation directly. This helps the company provide a top-notch product for its customers.

As a CTO, you will therefore often have marketing and product development responsibilities too. Your job will be to stay on top of what customers want and ensure you remain relevant to the market.

Listening to their feedback will give you further enhance the user experience. And happy customers lead to higher revenue.

Minimum viable product development

Unlike in established companies, a CTO is more than just a leader in startups. Thus, they might often have to participate in the technical team directly. This means programming alongside them.

This is especially true when it comes to developing the MVP. Since first impressions matter, it has to be as good as possible. A CTO can help here by suggesting possible designs and technology stacks.

In a startup, the Chief Technology Officer must be ready to become an active member of the tech staff. If there is a vacant spot, they must be ready to step in at any moment. This calls for strong hardware and software skills.

Overseeing the application architecture

Though startups often deliver their products fast, this speed sometimes works against them. Working fast means less time for testing. As a result, the MVP might have many bugs. This goes against the planned architecture.

As the CTO, it is your job to see if poor architecture is holding the startup down. Your team has to be as flexible as possible. To achieve this, you might have to handle certain tasks yourself or assign them to a better-suited employee.

Quality assurance management

While big companies often have their own Quality Assurance teams, startups can rarely afford them early on. Thus, it falls to the developers themselves to test the product.

The CTO oversees the testing. Due to the dull nature of the work, many CTOs try to avoid this responsibility. That makes finding a good one that much harder.

Overseeing vendor and customer relationships

Explaining the product benefits sometimes call for vast technical expertise. Often, the only one who can provide it is the CTO.

The CTO must thus be ready to partake in marketing and product sales, albeit indirectly. They should be able to answer customers’ questions about the product too. These can range from performance- to security-related questions.

Startup representation

Though the CEO might be the head of the company, the CTO represents its entire technical department. Since the CTO builds on the tech startup’s ideas, they must believe in their product.

Having a confident CTO can help the company attract new funders. Angel investors and venture capitalists often examine the company in great detail before they invest. A solid tech department can often sway them in the company’s favor.

10 essential qualities of a promising startup CTO

As the name suggests, a Chief Technical Officer must have come from a technology background. But this skill alone isn’t enough. They should be well-versed in product management and strategy development too.

But above all else, CTOs are leaders. Since they oversee a portion of the company’s employees, they should have strong leadership skills.

Wondering if you’d make a good CTO? Take a look at these 10 essential qualities every good CTO should have.

Be skilled in software development

Oskar Stål, CTO at Spotify, started out coding when he was 12

Since startups are tight on budget, they’re also tight on employees. Thus, they don’t have many tech experts to turn to for advice.

Sometimes, the CTO is the only person in the startup with any tech expertise. They should therefore be ready to answer most if not all tech-related questions.

Understand what the customers want or need

During the development process, you must understand what the customers expect. Many founders let their personal needs cloud their judgment. As a result, the final product doesn’t match the customer’s demand.

Remember, a company is only as happy as its unhappiest customer. Never forget who you’re building the product for. Otherwise, you might jeopardize the whole startup.

Be adaptable

Startups are always at risk of failure. Even if the CTO has a strong technical strategy, they might run into some obstacles along the way. It’s therefore very important to be adaptable.

Always expect the unexpected. And when a critical situation arises, keep your cool. Without this skill, your job as a CTO won’t survive long.

Be ready to become a jack-of-all-trades

Being a startup officer requires a degree of versatility. Your tasks might cover a wide range of areas. These can include engineering, marketing, and business strategy development, to name a few.

Have solid team management skills

Apart from having technical skills, a good CTO needs to be a strong leader. Overseeing the whole tech staff is no easy task. You’ll have to help your team grow and improve.

To achieve this, you’ll have to be a good mentor. Give your employees feedback and reward those who perform exceptionally well.

Have strong project management skills

The CTO is the boss of the entire tech staff. Thus, the task of overseeing tech projects will fall to you.

To succeed, you’ll need solid management skills. The task is even harder in startups. This is because of additional obstacles such as budget constraints and heavy pressure.

Be a strong problem solver

As the CTO, it will be your job to come up with the best solutions during product development. If the developers become stuck, you must be ready to step in.

Many times, you’ll have to succeed where many others have failed. This requires a logical and analytical mind.

Have solid strategic planning skills

Developers usually don’t plan beyond the span of a few weeks. The long-term strategic planning thus falls to the CTO.

Understanding how to build long-term focus plans will increase your company’s efficiency. And since technology startups aim to grow rapidly, they must be as efficient as possible.

Have good time management skills

Apart from organizing the people, the CTO must also organize their time. This extends to both assigning and meeting deadlines. Between sticking to your own hectic schedule, you’ll also have to set deadlines for your employees.

Having an experience with logistics can therefore go a long way.

Have experience in startups

This last quality is not truly essential. However, it will certainly come in handy.

The inner functions of a startup are fundamentally different from those of an established company. Startups often require working fast with limited resources. It can therefore be an overwhelming transition for inexperienced professionals.

Knowing what it’s like to work at a startup can thus give you an edge.

10 challenges every startup CTO must face eventually

Since a CTO’s responsibilities are quite multifaceted, so are the challenges they must face. These are especially more pronounced in startups where you must work against many constraints.

Here are the 10 challenges every startup CTO must face eventually:

Your role is not as clearly defined

As the CTO, you oversee a part of the company. You must thus be ready to inspire your employees and do everything in your power to help them succeed.

But in startups, you’re both the overseer and the employee. Many times, you’ll have to participate in tasks directly with your team. At the same time, you’ll have to work with limited time and resources.

Tackling organizational issues

By this point, you should know that the CTO’s responsibilities aren’t related to just the tech department. You will also handle tasks such as deciding on the best cooperation model, building your team, communicating with other departments, and developing a successful product. And this is just the beginning.

Tech startups usually have an idea in mind. The entrepreneur then builds on this idea and brainstorms a potential product. As the CTO, you’re responsible for creating this product. This will involve a lot of planning and finding solutions where others failed.

Working with a limited budget

Building a top-notch tech team requires a lot of financial resources. Resources you ultimately don’t have. Thus, you’ll learn how to make every penny count.

You can also test out new strategies when it comes to hiring people. For instance, you can hire them at a much cheaper price at platforms like DistantJob.

Thinking strategically

You will be tasked with developing the company’s technology strategy. Since it has to be compatible with the general business strategy, this can be very challenging.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to people who faced similar issues in the past. A bit of advice can be just enough for you to make a breakthrough.

Your business managers might also be able to help you clarify a few points. The willingness to communicate can lead to surprisingly good results.

Finding and managing talent

Building an outstanding tech team is quite a challenge. You’ll often have to work through both limited budget and geographical restrictions. Our tip is to transition to remote jobs. Many startups took this path and had great success with it.

While managing a team of remote workers isn’t easy, it offers more flexibility when it comes to scaling the team.

But your job doesn’t end with acquiring new talent. You must ensure that the employees stay loyal to your company. This can be difficult given how many job opportunities exist today.

Managing team growth

As your team grows, managing it becomes increasingly more difficult. This is something almost exclusive to startups.

In the beginning, your employees will need a little more motivation than the work itself. After all, tackling an unsolved technical challenge is a reward all its own.

But things change drastically later. As you gather more employees, motivating them becomes much harder. The best thing you can do then offers vacation days and various bonuses to ensure their happiness.

The key part of managing your team is creating a healthy workplace. You must remember that your employees are more than human resources – they’re also human beings.

Understand both business and technology needs

Though technology is your primary department, you’ll also need to understand the ways of commerce. This will help you develop a product that matches the consumers’ needs.

You can also reach Business Intelligence tools to aid you in market research. Though these skills lie outside of the CTO job description, they’re just as vital for your cause.

Coming up with innovative technologies

Startups rely on unique ideas that propel them forward. Long-term plans are not an option due to fewer resources.

Chief Technology Officers must be aware of this. They must not only come up with innovative ideas but also test and execute them.

Keeping your momentum

Once the company’s foot touches the ground, your goal will shift to keeping this momentum going. You must focus on improving your product so that it stays relevant to your customers.

To do so, you can set up detailed goals, both long-term and short-term. Communication with your team is also important. Always inform them of the current technical direction to ensure maximum efficiency.

Dealing with technical issues

As the head of technology, you are responsible for coming up with solutions during development.

During the early stages, your company won’t have a customer service or a quality assurance team. When someone encounters a bug or a glitch, it will fall to you to resolve these issues.

What does a good CTO do in a start-up? – Final Thoughts

Though a tech startup is a very promising business endeavor, it’s a demanding one too. Technology never remains constant. A tech startup must thus race to catch up to this ever-changing demand.

From software development to marketing, a CTO must use every skill in their arsenal to win this race. Their main goal is to ensure the company’s technology remains compatible with its goals.

The mantle of CTO demands great versatility too. The Chief Technology Officer might be tasked with managing human resources or even the budget. This calls for a strong set of skills. Without it, this position might prove to be too much to handle.

If you liked this article on what a CTO does in a startup,

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I'm the manager behind the Upcut Studio team. I've been involved in content marketing for quite a few years helping startups grow.