The Critical Choice - Picking the Perfect CTO Archetype for Your Business / Startup

Posted Oct 31, 2023
By Balázs HIDEGHÉTY
4 min reading time

In a world where exceptional technical leadership can make or break a company, it’s essential to consider the role of a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) with utmost care.

Selecting the right CTO is a critical decision, one that can significantly impact your business at its current stage and align with the existing roles within your engineering team. The wrong choice can lead to friction, inefficiencies, and unnecessary expenses, while the right one can act as an enabler, streamlining processes, and facilitating seamless future development without additional sacrifices.

Here’s the good news: you don’t always need a full-time CTO (and deep pockets) to get the tech expertise you need. Clear up some common misconceptions, match your CTO to your business, and watch it thrive.


Common misconceptions

Before we delve into the four CTO types and how they align with different company stages and the roles they encompass (all of which influence the CTO’s responsibilities), let’s dispel some myths surrounding the role of a technical expert:

  1. Hiring a great CTO based solely on offering equity - This is a flawed approach with significant long-term downsides (see. The Equity Fallacy).
  2. Believing that a senior lead, or even worse, a project manager with basic SQL and web app experience, can replace a technical lead - The harsh reality is that the technical expertise required by non-technical companies is measured in decades, not merely years!
  3. Hiring a CTO without taking into account the four CTO archetypes.

The 4 CTO Archetypes

It’s incredibly frustrating to be part of a team that lacks clear technical guidance, hindering effective communication, making poor technical decisions, and offering no opportunities for career development or mentorship.

When selecting the right CTO, it’s crucial to consider your team’s needs and existing roles; otherwise, you compromise quality and critical company cultural aspects, ultimately leading to morale, burnout, and retention issues, which will result in additional costs.

1️⃣ The Architect CTO

The Architect CTO, a technology expert, holds responsibilities in architectural design, critical building blocks, engineering streamlining, and vendor relationship management (buy-in vs build). The impact of this role is substantial, with a lasting influence on the company’s technology platform.

2️⃣ The People Leader CTO

…shapes the technical culture, handles hiring, and manages the team. In later stages, their role becomes similar to that of a VP of Engineering, with a focus on career development and team growth.

3️⃣ Marketing and Customer Facing CTO

The Marketing CTO actively engages with customers, demonstrating technical expertise, which not only boosts sales but also serves as a magnet for top talent and premium vendors. Their efforts showcase the company’s strengths and capabilities, fostering growth and success.

4️⃣ R&D (visionary) CTO

This role goes beyond coding, emphasizing strategic thinking about technology and industry evolution. They excel at spotting the next big product opportunity and guiding the company, even during challenging times. Their role is critical in driving company reinvention.

The 4 Stages of a Company

Now that we’ve explored the four CTO archetypes, let’s delve into the typical stages that a company goes through. Understanding these stages is crucial because most of the significant changes happen between these phases.

1️⃣ Idea Stage (Market Validation)

🌟 This is where you validate your business idea and discover the right problem-to-solution fit. You expand your concept, conduct market tests, gather insights from experts and potential customers, collaborate with vendors, and begin translating your business requirements into technical ones. During this phase, low-code solutions and Minimum Viable Products (MVPs) often come into play.

2️⃣ Launch Phase

🚀 Now, you transform your idea into a real, stable, and scalable solution, launching it to a broader audience. Measuring results, user experience, and usage becomes crucial. You might need to consider team expansion as you plan for growth.

3️⃣ Growth Stage

🌱 This stage is all about generating consistent revenue and expanding your user base. You’ll be balancing the acquisition of new customers, managing your revenue, and adapting your product or service to meet new user demands.

4️⃣ Maturity Stage (Visionary)

👁️ In the maturity stage, your company should actively seek new opportunities for expansion. This might involve building localized teams, exploring acquisitions, investing in team development, and discovering new growth channels. It’s crucial to stay focused on your core strengths and keep a close eye on the market for ongoing success.

Putting the Pieces Together

In the Idea and Launch Stages, the team is relatively small, but this is where technical foundations are laid. Both of these phases require a technical CTO with an architectural focus. However, as the team grows (through hiring and managing people), the Launch Stage must not lack a personally focused CTO.

In the Growth Stage, a more seasoned CTO with a personal focus is required, someone who can manage managers. Besides that archetype, a marketing-focused CTO skillset becomes valuable at this stage.

Once the Maturity Stage is reached, most of the former CTO tasks are delegated to other leaders (such as technical leads, VPEs, and CMOs). Here, the CTO must think beyond code, focusing on technology and anticipating industry changes to prevent business disruption and react effectively.

Summary

In the startup journey, the early stages serve as the foundation for future success. It’s essential to establish strong technical foundations that create long-term value, laying the groundwork for sustainable growth. Initiating these phases without the technical CTO archetype is likely to disrupt this success path.

In closing, it’s crucial to keep one additional thing in mind when it comes to the CTO role: it is inherently strategic, with a primary focus on long-term value creation. This strategic nature can, at times, create friction with short-term operational goals, resulting in conflicts of interest with roles on the operational team. Because of this conflict of interest, to make the best use of your CTO, it’s advisable to avoid assigning operational tasks to them. This approach will help ensure that the CTO’s strategic vision can contribute effectively to the long-term growth and value of your company / startup.


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