Surprises Along the Journey to Becoming a Founding CTO

Jun 25, 2018 | Perspectives in Engineering

When you listen to CTOs of larger companies explain their roles in the organization, you’ll often hear how they are the external face of the company’s technology platform. They’re the ones who stump for the company to developers, customers, and employees alike.

That’s an important role, but most brand-new startups don’t need someone to take on that role full-time. Being a founding CTO is a different job altogether—and it’s one that caught Gord Tanner, co-founder and the founding CTO of bitHound, by surprise.

“In the beginning, I felt like a deer in headlights,” he says. “It was as if all of a sudden I had four people looking at me, saying, ‘Alright, what’s next? What’s the plan? What’s the vision?’”

Most individuals don’t attend executive training school before setting out to grow an organization. So transitioning to the pinnacle role in Engineering is a bit like building a Jenga tower in the dark. Tanner enjoys discussing his experience getting bitHound off the ground with co-founders Dan Silivestru and P.J. Lowe, in hopes that he can flip on the lights for other engineers setting out to start their own ventures.

How “CTO” happened

As happens with all startups, Tanner’s began with the twinkle in his eye. “I started with this genesis of an idea,” he says, “and it was something I thought was possible.”

Now, whether you quit your job to dedicate yourself to that idea or you take it on as a serious hobby, you and maybe a couple buddies are doing everything yourselves. You may be donning the Founding CTO hat already, but you’re possibly not using titles with each other yet.

Titles or no, that experience is still a phenomenal training ground. When you were solely an IC for another organization, you could focus your expertise on your own responsibilities within the code base. But when you’re one of two to five people in an entire company, you’re exposed to everything that’s happening. More than that, you’re involved with setting priorities and making big-picture decisions.

“Our startup soon became more than a side project. I went from being an engineer engaging in a hobby, to someone directing where a real product with customers was going. It was a real challenge.”

Guess what? You’re an executive. For some of us, that self-promotion happens incidentally as part of founding a company. Others of us have aspirations of becoming technical leaders. Either way, this early-stage experience is invaluable preparation for the rest of your career.

And that’s just the technical side of things. Then there’s the point when you start looking outside yourselves for new hires and new investors.

“Getting initial investment was pivotal, of course, though came with this almost odd feeling,” Tanner recalls. “Our startup soon became more than a side project. I went from an engineer engaging in a hobby, to someone directing where a real product with customers was going. It was a real challenge.”

The role of the startup CTO

There’s definitely that point—when your idea, like Pinocchio, becomes a real company. By now, you’ve definitely divvied up mantles, and one of you is now officially the founding CTO.

So what does a startup CTO do in a typical day?

The short answer is, there is no typical day in a new startup. But in overarching terms, the CTO’s main role is to ensure that the startup’s technology strategy serves its business strategy. That’s intentionally broad, but it’s necessary if you want the company to thrive.

Tanner went about building bitHound’s vision by hiring to his weaknesses. “I could take on what I was good at,” he says, “but I needed to find folks that could help do the things that I was slower or not good at. And you should always know that you’ll have to step in to help these folks, because at this point your idea is still nebulous. At this point, you’re the person keeping all the ideas pointing in the same direction.”

“Listening, I found, was the biggest lesson. You’re bringing in new, smart people, and you need to listen to their questions, thoughts, and ideas on where you are going.”

In practical terms, the CTO isn’t going to have time to do everything. Especially as a first-time founding CTO, you can grow into the role while you continue to conduct code reviews, and maybe even keep coding some yourself. But you’ll increasingly focus on the technical direction of the company, your partners and your competitors, and industry trends on the horizon that may impact your product.

With the CTO title comes certain inevitable responsibilities. It doesn’t matter how technical you start off: you’ll need to build the engineering organization. From board meetings to rallying the team around a central vision, you’ll spend a good amount of your time recruiting, managing, motivating, and retaining talent in a competitive environment.

All that will require you to develop self-awareness around your strengths and weaknesses. And it will require you both to delegate and to listen to your team members.

“Listening, I found, was the biggest lesson,” Tanner says. “You’re bringing in new, smart people, and you need to listen to their questions, thoughts, and ideas on where you are going. There were so many times when I had iron-clad ideas about what is important and what the product should do. Then I’d have an intern come in and ask a question in a way that shook the entire foundation of those convictions I’d built.”

Supporting the future of the organization

Responsible for setting the company’s tech strategy (and seeing the big picture in graphical detail) and building the engineering organization to support that vision, a founding CTO plays an undeniably significant role in the long-term success of the company.

The truth is, you may be the best CTO for getting your company off the ground, but you may or may not be the CTO of its future.

“One of the underlying responsibilities, especially for the C-suite executives, is to find the person who’s going to succeed you,” Tanner says.

You are the founding CTO because you have technological skills, you have the vision, and you’re capable of helping the company grow. But there are natural handoff points as any organization scales. You may be able to grow a company from zero to 10 engineers, or even from 10 to 15.

“I’ve always felt that I can lead through those first couple handoff points,” Tanner says. “But what if we get one of those rock-star folks coming in with a playbook that’s ready to take the title? The possibility is always on the table. And you have to know when it’s time for you to step aside and bring other leaders to the helm — for the good of the company.”

“You’re not going to build anything bigger than what’s in your head if you don’t truly start listening to others.”

Think of this as the ultimate form of delegation, and possibly the most mature step you can ever take as a technology leader. You started your business because your vision was too great to keep in your own head. If you build only what’s in your noggin, Tanner says, you’re building something too small.

So whether or not you intend to pass the CTO title to another leader, always remember that your company will only continue to grow as long as your vision is bigger than yourself. That means that you need a team you can rely on, that you can develop, and that you aren’t trying to control. And you need to groom other leaders, whether they’re there to support you or supplant you. Because although you’re steering the vision, Tanner brings a CTO’s role back to keeping an open door and an open mind.

“You’re not going to build anything bigger than what’s in your head if you don’t truly start listening to others,” he says.


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