So, you want to be a CTO? We asked some existing CTOs how to make the leap

CTO seems like a natural career move for many senior technologists. However, it may not be for everyone, and it’s not always the most straightforward transition to pull off. So, what, really, is a CTO? And what makes them tick? And more importantly, what makes a good one? 

We were privileged to be joined recently by three inspirational CTOs, from very different backgrounds, to give their insight into the journey to becoming a CTO:

  • Christina Scott, CPTO of OVO Energy (UK), formerly Global Head of Emerging Technology, News Corp and Global CTO of News UK.
  • Shaun Pearce, CTO at Gousto (UK).
  • Patrick Kua, Tech Leadership Coach, ex-CTO and Chief Scientist of N26 (Germany) and Technical Principal Consultant at ThoughtWorks.

They shared their own journeys and learnings to becoming a CTO and provided some valuable takeaways on what is needed to transition from senior technology leader to the C-Suite.

The discussion naturally hit some important topics, including: 

  • What is a CTO role?
  • How each of the contributors got to where they are now
  • What lessons they learned
  • What advice they would give to others.

The future of technology leadership is always changing. So, let’s look at some of the key takeaways from their discussion.

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Additional reading: If you want to shape your career and CTO planning around how data can help inform business decisions, check out our recent publication — How to Become a More Data-Driven Organisation

Takeaway 1: Be clear about what a CTO is

The role of the CTO, like that of the COO, has different scope in different organisations. Depending on the business, the role of the CTO will change. Consider three common scenarios — 

  • Start-ups: Here, you probably grew up with the company and are potentially the smartest technologist in the room.
  • Growth phase businesses: Here, the business will need to scale, and you can’t simply expand your tech team. Recruiting good people and building the right structures will be the name of the game here.
  • Large enterprises: Here, the people and processes will be mainly in place. You will, however, be dealing with board members who are definitely not technologists — they may not even understand your role. According to Christina, who has worked primarily in this area, you will spend a lot of your time explaining the technology.

There is no particular magic number to define where each of these types begins or ends. However, Pat gave a rule-of-thumb — “if you are the bottleneck in any specific process, then it’s time to change the nature of your role”. 

Shaun reckoned that there were “major pitfalls in hanging on too long to the technology — rather than focusing on management and leadership”. A warning sign here was hiring engineers with no support structures in place. He was very keen to advise that you have the proper engineering management structure in place as soon as possible.

Takeaway 2: Understand what skills are needed (and they aren’t necessarily technical)

Christina reckoned “there is a view that engineers become CTOs and don’t do tech anymore”, and there is some truth to this. To be a CTO, you don’t need hard engineering skills — and you don’t have to be the best technologist. However, things that everyone agreed on were: 

  • Your ability to know what the business needs — and what you can offer that fits.
  • In the start-up space, you will be expected to provide a more hands-on product development role.
  • You may be needed to provide operational expertise. Your technology knowledge will be necessary to the business, and your role will be bringing technology to the management team.
  • In a larger organisation, you will be expected to partner with other roles such as CMO or COO and align the technology approach with the overall business strategy.

Pat pointed out that “knowing the expectations of the business may be difficult”, as, in his experience, this was not necessarily well articulated. 

Know what you like doing 

When looking to transition into being a CTO, it’s critical that you understand what you like doing. All of these different business needs equate to different skill sets. For example, look at specifics in the role you will be expected to carry out to ensure that you are suited to the position and will enjoy it. 

According to Christina, “being able to flip from HR to security to project planning to budget discussions in a day” was a constant challenge. If you like to concentrate on one task at a time — CTO may not be for you.

Know how to communicate

All the panellists highlighted the importance of communication skills. You have to recognise that speaking to and motivating your technical teams is very different from how you need to communicate with the rest of the business – and you need to be able to do both well. 

Know how to build your support network

Ensure you put in place teams to support you and free up thinking time. Build out your tech management and functional teams to refer problems, defer to, and trust they will perform. This is the only way that you will have time to focus on the bigger picture. 

Takeaway 3: Build credibility

The CTO role requires facing into a team of technologists and out to the business — a complex combination to pull off. Fundamentally, creating credible relationships is critical to making this work. A few tips everyone on the panel agreed on that will help you do this include —  

  • Be open – don’t pretend to know everything: This is critical to balance tech needs with business success. Ensure your tech team understands that the perfect technology solution may not fit with business needs.
  • Be clear about your expertise and what you can offer: According to Shaun, technologists are opinionated — listen and pause before taking action, especially before implementing change. Demonstrate you are willing to learn and pay attention to your subject matter experts.
  • Ask for help with confidence: Your job isn’t to know all of the answers. Push back to help the team and be supportive, but make it clear that you’re not the font of all knowledge or wisdom. Give clarity about the bigger picture and ensure your team has bought into it. 
  • Focus on quick wins: This will build confidence with your teams and your peers. According to Christina, “complexity and legacy is the killer of all things” — so avoid it — especially in the early days.

Takeaway 4: Get your CTO job

The first step on the ladder is always tricky. Our panellists provided some excellent advice based on their own experience of getting their CTO roles. First, focus on culture/environments before the role. What gives you energy? Follow that path. Timing is essential, and while it’s something you can’t control, you can stack the odds in your favour.

  • Talk to headhunters: There won’t be much chance of a match initially — especially if you have thought through the type of role you want — but longer term, they will know what you are after.
  • Reach out to personal contacts: This is an important factor helping you get your foot in the door, and is something you should be working to build starting today. 
  • Contact companies who you would like to work for: Reach out, talk to them, see what they are looking for — it can’t hurt. 

Management track vs technical knowledge?

According to the panellists, there should be no “fork-in-the-road” decision in becoming a CTO.

If you are in a start-up or business undergoing a rapid expansion phase, Pat’s advice was that you could “potentially move from technologist to CTO just by expanding your role within the company”. For this to happen, it’s vital to build a reputation with other parts of the business for being easy to work with. 

Shaun believed that he did have a “grass is always greener” moment when he switched roles early in his career. He soon realised that you need to straddle both camps, demonstrating empathy for technology decisions rather than just understanding the technology in depth.

Christina reckoned that the CTO role could be so different that “breadth of experience” is better than a depth of technical knowledge. 

“CTO sounds a lovely job title — but focus on the role — people management makes up a lot of this role” — Christina.

Takeaway 5: Use resources — they are there to help

Every member of the panel could point to many self-directed learning resources that could help develop CTO skills, but all reckoned peer advice was the best and most significant source of problem-solving and insight. In Christina’s view, most CTOs don’t have a defensive competitor outlook and would readily help if they had come across a similar problem. She said it was essential to reach out and find other CTOs — Community groups and services such as CTO Connection and CTO Craft Group proved helpful. 

People are surprisingly helpful — Shaun.

Shaun found it particularly useful to ask others when you needed to get a feel for a topic or explore areas where you had no direct experience. His best advice was to find time in your day to reflect — review meetings, conversations and decisions and see how you could improve.

Pat’s advice was along the same lines, the resources are there, but you need self-awareness about where you are going and what gaps you need to fill. For example, one of the areas he focused on was understanding team topologies and developing tech roadmaps based on technology or software development trends.

Suggested reading: If you want a few more pieces of advice right now, check out our recent post — 5 Tips on Becoming a Better Tech Leader. 

Get help along the way 

At 101 Ways, we have always helped business and technology leaders improve outcomes, in part, by becoming better leaders.

There has never been a better time to be a CTO — Christina.

Our expert coaches can partner with you to share knowledge, coach on new practices and train and mentor to improve your capabilities. If you want to learn more about leadership or get help refining a strategy, get in touch — there are 101 Ways to do things, and we are here to help you get it done right.

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