Do you have what it takes to be a startup CTO?

SUNDAY, AUGUST 23, 2020    

The new buzz word in town is the term CTO. As all industries start to embrace technology as part of the core business, the person incharge of this technology will then start to grow in its important. Do you then know what does the role of a CTO entails? Beyond the glamorous term comes with a ton of responsibilities that is paramount for the development of the company across its stages. If you ever aspire to be a CTO yourself someday, this article is for you.

You jump off a cliff and you assemble an airplane on the way down. - Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn

We will be going through these sections:

  1. What does CTO do across stages of a startup

  2. Challenges

  3. Key learnings/ opportunities

    • Key habits to get started on

What does CTO do across stages of a startup

1. Pre-seed stage

Here you have 0 - 1 developer to basically kick start your entire idea. From git repo initilisation to actually be able to see a UI. Here is where your pre-seed stage will be.

  • Building the MVP

Startup CTOs should be well versed in the tools and technologies available for building MVPs, whether those be web apps, mobile apps, desktop software. They cannot be afraid to get their hands dirty because even if there is a budget to hire a team, the CTO plays backup for any roles that cannot be immediately filled.

You need to create this MVP that can be able to gain real-time user feedback as fast as possible.

2. Early startup

You actually have some intermittent market feedback of a market fit and now you are looking to ramp up your development work. Here, you will look to have 1 - 10 engineers to kick start your development process. I’ve come to believe that different companies sits in this stage for various durations. The size of the engineering team should only appropriately grow in proportion with the performance and traction of the product or service. You do not want to find yourself to be in a situation where you are mass-hiring but each engineers are actually relatively unproductive. You should only ramp up the size of the engineering when you have processes in place to better manage these additional manpower. Truly, many cooks spoil the broth. Listed below are some of the scope of a CTO in the early start phase:

  • Hiring engineers, IT professionals, and data scientists.

Finding and bringing on engineering talent is one of the hardest things for tech startups to do. Hiring for cultural fit at a small startup is challenging. Many developers want to specialize while startups demand generalists.

CTO at a startup has to be good at hiring, onboarding, training, and eventually replacing the company’s technical staffs. Having a proven hiring process and strong network will help.

  • Figuring out company-wide security

When no security policy was done before, it falls onto the lap of CTOs to own the security component, run audits, document security procedures, and train everyone on the basis of it.

Simple security includes a VPN to protect your servers & database from public access.

  • Product management

While the CTOs primary goal is to make the vision of the non-technical product manager a reality, it also means that they have to manage the flow of work into the engineering team. Often times, CTOs take an active role in laying out the product planning process. It is common for startup CTOs to learn both product and technology. Its challenging but learning new things is the norm at startups.

  • Clear technical debts
    A good startup CTO will recognize when poor architecture is slowing down the team, and will step in to settle these technical debts when needed. Eventually these architecture clean ups may be delegated to senior engineers, but it will be likely to fall onto the CTO once in a while.

  • Bug triage

First without a Quality Assurance team, it falls onto the CTO to triage bugs, replicate and document down the behavior of the feature, then distribute these bugs to the team for a fix. Deciding how to debug an issue requires detailed understanding of the implementation.

  • QA and testing

Without a proper initial team of quality assurance engineers, the testing layer falls onto the responsibility of the engineering team, headed by the CTO. Planning out the testing layers requires hands-on, hands dirty experiments.

Attached is an article on how to create your testing layer in your company. Check it out here.

  • DevOps

Your servers are your digital assets, and until a DevOps engineer is hired to manage these assets, it will too fall onto the CTO to manage them during the interim period.

3. Growth

Here the company has been gaining traction and is now looking to grow the team from 10 - 100 engineers. The company’s product is starting to mature and people are looking to settle into your company as a possible career-long alternative. In here, then you have to focus on ensuring employee retention and a healthy career progression for each of your employees.

  • Vendor and customer relationship

The CTO has to be clear to figure out what is needed to be done to streamline the company’s technical cost. It could be for the developers processes, or the company’s process through technology.
This is essential if the product is starting to integrate with other softwares or has its own API. The external technical relationships will be the responsibility of the CTO. This is essential if we have power users whom are integrating with us, requesting for some ‘must-have’ features.

  • Team growth management

Managing a team of 5 is different from managing a team of 100. Once the company expands and grow, you will start to hire more specialised engineers which isn’t looking for exciting and challenging tasks. Their focus will just be the traditional benefits, vacation days, and a structured career ladder. The ability to develop the skillset to manage the startup across different life stages will also be the challenge the CTO has to undergo.

  • Employee retention

The early employees whom joined for the challenges may consider other options as the startup phases into a mid-sized startup. As tech workers has plenty of options, its rare to keep one for more than 2, 3 years. The CTO that moves the company across phases has to learn how to retain their employees with strong alignment to the worker’s personal goals.

4. Expansion

Generally, once you are in the phase of expansion, you have to be laser focused to get your technology vision and mission in your company. This does not imply that your company has to utilize the latest technology all the time. Fundamentally, what is your company’s vision and problem statement? Focus on that, and ensure that we are using the best technology available out there to achieve this goal.


The challenges a CTO face will be endless. Even as a developer, the amount of challenges you face are endless and everyday you have a ton of todos and blockers to clear. More specifically for CTOs, just as I was reading up on the this aspect, the key challenges faced by all CTOs are primarily hiring and alignment with business people.

1. Hiring

Good engineers that can help you to marry business and technology are hard to find. It will be all the more in demand in times when the world is embracing digital transformation. Even investors are willing to put their millions into savings plans through video calls. It is key to hire not just gifted engineers but those whom will also help shape the culture of the business.

2. Focusing on customer engagement

If you want to create a good technology, it is only just as good as whom the technology is created for. You may create the world’s first robotic arm for minimally invasive surgery but if i’m only washing dishes, why would that be of value to me? You have to benchmark the quality of your product to the utility of your target audience. They have the valuable feedback. In a world where there is a imperfect information, one can only move in the most informed decision; but always with a certain level of uncertainty and risk. Continuously engage with your ‘customers’ and find out what will empower them and set them up to do more with less using your product.

5 Key learning opportunities

Not everyone is born ready for such a big role. It will stretch you, ‘forces’ you to rise up to the occasion and you may even be surprised by what you are able to achieve when you’re placed under the pressurized cooker of your business demands. Generally, CTO is a leadership role. As glamorous as it may sound, it is still in essence just a role. What is most important is the being that is placed in that role. Are you developing yourself to face the bigger problems that are before you?

  1. Technical knowledge

  2. Technical leadership and strategy planning

  3. Communication and Mentoring

  4. Project management and Operational excellence

  5. Sense of entrepreneurship and anticipation of the future

What better way to find out your key areas of learning opportunities than to hear from founders themselves. Here’s a video that sums this up


The end goal, the article gives a in-depth glimpse into the scope of a CTO’s day to day. How then can one possibly keep up with this pace of work? Only if you have a clear vision of the possible future. Technology is no longer just a tool for your Business-as-usual. It could possibly shape your future and redesign how life could be, should be, and will be.

From here on, I wish to share with you all a really cool podcast called Modern CTO. It is a podcast whom CTOs of all different companies will share some of their thoughts, journey, and learnings as CTOs. One thing is common: their level of curiosity for the world around them. Whatever role you are to play, stay curious and be a future explorer!

JDs and scope of CTOs across all stages of startup

Vision & Strategy

  • Setting a vision for how technology will be used in the company.


  • Outline the goals for research and development.
  • Research any new technologies that may potentially increase our company’s competitive advantage
  • Discover and implement new technologies that yield competitive advantage

External stakeholder management

  • Use stakeholders’ feedback to inform necessary improvements and adjustments to technology
  • Communicate technology strategy to partners and investors

Internal People management

  • Acting as a mentor to team members
  • Creating a positive workplace culture to promote creative work and contented team
  • Interviewing, hiring, on-boarding, and training of engineers.

Company alignment

  • Develop technical aspects of the company’s strategy to ensure alignment with its business goals
  • Develop the technical aspects of our company’s strategy
  • Making executive decisions on behalf of the company’s technological requirements.
  • Help departments use technology profitably
  • Monitor KPIs and IT budgets to assess technological performance
  • Ensuring that the technological resources meet the company’s short and long-term needs.

Market readiness

  • Maintaining a consumer-focused outlook and aiding in the delivering of IT projects to market.
  • Staying on top of technology trends and developments.

Project delivery and project management processes

  • Managing technology budgets and time frames.
  • Creating timelines for the development and deployment of all technological services.

Quality assurance

  • Ensuring all technology practices adhere to regulatory standards.
  • Supervise system infrastructure to ensure functionality and efficiency
  • Monitor system infrastructure
  • Ensure system infrastructure is functioning and working efficiently
  • Build quality assurance and data protection processes

CTO's mission What are some other CTO’s mission in their companies