What makes a perfect CTO?

M51 Editorial


It’s not an easy question to answer. The CTO role is expanding far beyond tech-oriented boundaries, evolving along with the business. One could even say it’s one of the least understood of all C-suite positions, yet properly defining and aligning it with organizational goals and priorities is crucial in our digitally-driven world. 

Based on what we’ve seen and experienced, here are the qualities that are the closest thing to a formula (as circumstances vary for every business) for a perfect CTO. At the very least, you can use this as a framework to distinguish a great CTO from a good one.  

Besides being someone who you need to get along with (that’s a given), the perfect CTO is:

1. Business-oriented

The perfect CTO will possess an in-depth knowledge of the broader business operations and where it is heading. That’s not to say that a CTO who is solely focused on adopting and leveraging technology to make the organization run smoothly, or is following the CEO’s commands in a professional way are bad scenarios. A lot of CTOs are like that. But having one who actually understands the business (while knowing technology much better than the CEO) is the next level – CTO 2.0, if you will.

This is someone who:

  • offers solutions;
  • creates roadmaps;
  • helps lead via innovation and strategic thinking;
  • Is involved in decision-making for tech investments and the creation of the digital business strategy;
  • works with other business executives to identify and understand market opportunities, in order to render them into products and services.

In other words: a real force in driving the company forward, beyond tech.

2. Good at prioritizing 

In theory, a CTO’s job is to know and handle everything regarding the company’s tech, tools, and services, as well as to provide guidelines for future development.

In reality, it means there will be more tasks than time. There will always be something to do and pressure to accomplish certain goals so it’s imperative for a CTO to be able to organize and prioritize their work. 

Separating the wheat from the chaff implies looking at the big picture and knowing how to delegate, especially with a position like this that comes with a certain dose of leadership. The best CTOs know how to stay in control without burdening themselves with unnecessary responsibilities. Also by doing so, they show their developers that they trust them when it comes to coding-related issues and beyond.

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3. A leader 

We believe that a tech pro who is also a good leader, is critical for a growing startup. We are of that school of thought that claims a CTO should be able to naturally transition to the CEO role (far easier than other members of the C-suite). The right tech-based decisions are what make a company scalable and enable a lean team.

For me, it’s about taking responsibility for everything that happens and is about to happen. There is going to be a mountain of tasks and duties to perform week in and week out so a perfect CTO should:

  • make sure internal and external systems are performing as expected;
  • manage teams;
  • know when to hire someone to keep the machine running 24/7;
  • invest significant time and effort to both manage expectations and inspire company culture. 

4. Is self-critical

A good CTO should be aware of their limitations (because hey, nobody is perfect). Everyone has limitations, no matter how talented and multi-dimensional they are. You want someone who knows their weaknesses and how to plug them accordingly. 

5. Motivated and motivating

We often refer to CTOs as marathonists. Despite how fast technology changes and impacts business, this is not a sprint. Sometimes, there’s no substitution for the daily grind to make a company a success in the long run. A great CTO will treat it as an investment (and such an approach is routinely far more valuable than technical proficiency).

That requires motivation and fostering an environment that encourages and inspires developers to produce their best work.

The best CTOs have that certain something in them, a marathon runner’s spark that drives them to execute ideas and plans, whether it’s from a business or technical standpoint. Ensure he/she share your vision and is in it for the long run – you can always give more equity or performance-based compensation. 

Accordingly, a CTO needs to translate their motivation onto the team of developers, data analysts and scientists, QA experts, and all others they are in charge of. In many ways, a CTO has to be a people’s person to instill a culture of teamwork. Part of the job is to make sure the technical strategy goes in line with the overall business strategy, which means compromises will have to be made at some point. 

Motivation is a two-way street that starts with the top brass and builds on communication and stability over time. If a CTO does it properly, not only will it help minimize the team’s work-related stress and burnout but also push them to do their best. Who knows, they might even come up with solutions their boss might have missed.

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6. Tech visionary 

No CTO can be a CTO without a keen sense of new technologies. While knowledge of everything that happens in the tech ecosystem may not be possible, there has to be a strong connection to technology to understand what’s possible and what the alternatives are. So, when a new programming language comes out (or even a new version of it) or a new solution that does something relevant to the business, a CTO needs to be on top of it.

Because the pace of innovation is so fast, all of the above makes it easier to identify the difference between hype/temporary solutions and future-oriented ones. To truly be a technology visionary, one must position themselves to be as able as possible to foresee whether a certain technology will work out or not. Whenever you interview a CTO, make sure to ask them about the latest news and developments – you can use it as a filter of sorts. You need someone who can keep up with the times at all times – a quick learner.

Final thoughts

You can think of the CTO as the motor that keeps the entire operation running, particularly for tech startups. It’s an ever-changing role that grows in importance and responsibility in the face of fast-paced growth. Hence, a perfect CTO has to constantly iterate and build upon the changing times to succeed.

To sum it up: a perfect CTO is a person who speaks technology, thinks business, and is a natural leader. 

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