“When you hire amazing people who are better than you at what they do, you look like a genius.” – Rob Hayes, First Round
As a startup founder coming from a non-tech background, choosing a CTO might seem like mission impossible. How can you tell what to look for in a CTO? What can you offer them? Do you even need a CTO?
These are all super valid questions, no matter what stage you are in your startup journey. I’m going to start this article by tackling that last one.
And guess what? Not all startups necessarily need a CTO.
Do you really need a CTO?
What point are you at in your journey? If you’re still in pre-startup land, you might not need a CTO yet, unless you have someone you know in mind to approach to be a CTO/co-founder. If you do have someone in mind, then you’ll still need to consider/assess their technical and managerial abilities before simply offering them the position.
How unique or complex is the tech needed for your product? Are there plenty of other businesses who use similar technology already? If the tech part of your product offering is not unique and/or complex, then you might not need a CTO. In this case, you can choose to outsource tech development, or bring on a senior developer to guide direction and onboard in-house developers. At a later date, when scaling, or developing a new feature set, you may need to reconsider, but at this stage, a CTO really isn’t necessary.
Are you looking for some more (ongoing) strategic direction, after commissioning a prototype for proof-of-concept or minimum viable product? Then hiring a CTO, or at least a consultant, could be invaluable.
A CTO doesn’t necessarily have to write code (but they do have to know how to)
Some startups code first for prototyping and some code later, if they know the feature-set of their application is already possible and it’s fairly easy to build-out. Does your CTO need to write code? Well, that’s all up to you, really.
That CTO you’re looking to hire? The position can take many forms. Full-time, part-time, founder, non-founder, coder, non-coder. The role your CTO needs to do is advise on tech strategy; stacks, hiring, infrastructure decisions, etc. They don’t necessarily need to write code.
Know the job you’re hiring for
Many startups won’t need a full-time CTO if they have developers doing the grunt work. Or if you do have a full-time CTO, they’ll be coding or involved in other business development and operations, simply because the CTO role itself won’t be necessary for 30 odd hours a week.
Even if your CTO doesn’t code, they’ll need to be able to read what your devs have pumped out to see whether it’s up to scratch – and possibly error correct along the way.
Check out their GitHub accounts
You know how I said a CTO doesn’t have to write code? That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have a back catalogue of projects to scroll through. Unless they’ve been a CTO or technology advisor for many years, they’ll likely have a GitHub account you can browse, with components or apps they’ve written, or at least projects that they’ve contributed to.
Go through with a senior developer and get their opinions both on the sophistication of the candidate’s code as well as the architecture of their solutions to determine a skill level. If a candidate isn’t skilled at code architecture, they’re probably going to make a crummy tech decision-maker.
Passion for your project isn’t going to be the biggest hiring factor
Many roles within your startup can be staffed by hiring passionate, clever people who are able to get up to speed on topics quickly. When hiring for most positions, passion is going to be your number one criteria. However, for a startup that leans heavily on tech and requires optimal tech solutions to run, you need to ensure CTO candidates have a broad knowledge of tech stacks, tools, trends, and potential roadblocks in terms of technology maturity. While a CTO needs to be passionate, too, it’s the knowledge that they bring to the table that needs to be the #1 criteria behind hiring.
“Good CTOs should be able to apply practical knowledge to build better software. They shouldn’t rely on people under them or consultants for technical expertise.” – Yair Flicker, SmartLogic
Should my CTO be a co-founder?
Your cofounders should be people that you already know, or a trusted person 2-degrees of separation out in your network of a friend – bringing on someone who you don’t already know (or innately trust) in a founding role can be a mistake. If you don’t have someone who can fill that role already within your network, then you’ll need another way for your incoming CTO to have a personal investment in your startup’s success – which is generally achieved by giving equity, but not at the founder level. How much? Enough to motivate, acknowledge their work, their time… equity distribution is a fine art. Paul Graham’s ‘The Equity Equation’ makes for a good read and consideration.
A final note
If you’re going with an outside, unknown hire for CTO, then you’ll need to have a senior developer or consultant involved in the entire process, from crafting a job listing to vetting candidates and being a part of the interviewing panel. Hiring the right employees is crucial to success, your CTO even more so – so splurge on the advisor for this process if necessary.
While it’s not impossible to hire a CTO when you don’t have a tech background, you’ll need some extra help along the way. Remember that you’re hiring for visionary tech strategy and not just to design the overall structure of your system – and you’ll go far.
And the final word?
“Trust your gut. Any time I’ve hired someone who somehow didn’t quite feel right, I was sorry later.” – Dr. Tony Karrer, CTO
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