How to be Your Own CTO
Stroll through the hallways of the C-suite offices in any corporate headquarters and you’ll find the home base for the company’s chief technology officer (CTO). As technology plays an increasingly large role in the success of virtually every industry, CTOs find their responsibilities correspondingly important and growing.
Let me clarify that statement just a bit; technology plays an increasingly important role in the success of virtually every industry big or small, old or new.
Many startups and small businesses however, aren’t in a position to hire CTOs and staff their departments. For this reason, many owners must learn how to be their own CTO.
The first step to accomplishing this – and if you don’t retain anything else I’m going to say, remember this – is to understand that the CTO is an executive position. In other words, when a successful corporation wants to move from one database format to another, the CTO doesn’t do the coding – the CTO supervises the project and is ultimately responsible for making the right “big picture” choices.
So, relax; you don’t need to know how to program in JAVA or write SQL queries from scratch. You do however, need to have a good grasp of the relationship between technology and the success of your organization.
Let’s get into some details and start by looking at what could be considered a CTO job description:
The CTO will continually evolve the company’s beneficial use of technology, aligning technologies and strategies to company goals. The CTO will manage the selection, development, and implementation of appropriate technology.
This gives you a good foundation and can serve to guide you on what’s required of you should you decide to be your own CTO. You need to have the big picture of where your organization is in its development. Are you a startup, young company, or legacy organization? The main tasks of the CTO are different depending on your stage of development.
The startup CTO
As a startup CTO, you’re handed a blank (or nearly blank) canvas. You need to put technology in place to create the product or service. Is it available off-the-shelf, or does it require a custom approach?
Further, you must consider the technology required to run the company on a day-to-day basis along with the technology and tech strategies required to market the product or service.
If you’re serving as your own CTO today, you certainly have some advantages that weren’t available a decade ago. For example, you can tap into a huge – and growing – catalog of SaaS (software as a service). In a larger corporate setting, the CTO might have to get bids from developers to design a custom inventory system; as your own small business or startup CTO, SaaS such as Quickbooks, offer inventory control in some of their packages.
SaaS is ideal for startups and growing business because they allow you to buy as much “technology” as you need. Digital marketing SaaS companies – including social media marketing and email marketing –always have several levels of their product available. This allows you to budget for as much of the service as you need at various points of your growth.
The next key to being your own CTO applies no matter where you see the development of your business: You need to be good at project management.
While the CTO of a major corporation has a team of programmers down the hall or in the next building, the DIY CTOs may leverage the wide range of freelance talent and “virtual” employees available today, and have their programmers in India, the Philippines, or three states over.
Keeping virtual teams organized and accountable requires good project management skills. Again, SaaS is going to be your best buddy. Web-based services like Basecamp, Trello, and Asana give you the framework to create, organize, assign, and track distributed workload tasks no matter where your team members are located.
CTO in a growing business
While the startup CTO often just needs to get “something” in place to accomplish a goal, as the business matures, the focus changes somewhat.
Let’s say you’ve made it over the hump and have now set your sights on profits – increasing or establishing them. While investors seem to give some tech companies a pass on profits interminably, the DIY CTO has no such luxury. Further, to gain the competitive edge demanded by the marketplace today, shaving every cost and squeezing every bit of productivity is necessary.
This requires the CTO of a growing business to always be looking at technology solutions that reduce costs and boost profits. In this scenario, the improved cash situation allows the business to continue or accelerate its growth.
CTO in a mature business
Ongoing process improvements are the rule of the day in a more mature business. Many of these process improvements will be centered around better technology. This puts a special burden on the CTO. CTOs in an established business need to keep up with new technologies and discover how they can be used to improve a legacy operation…where some team members will resist change.
As a DIY CTO, you’re the leader, and your ability to keep your team open to change depends on the kind of culture you create. Instilling the DNA of continual improvement and open mindedness is critical. And, the person to start with is yourself. Although you have enjoyed some success, you need to keep learning and keep your eyes open.
The “that’s not how we do it here” mindset can easily creep into an organization and cause people to become blind to new technology that can deliver an overall performance improvement. (I probably don’t need to explain how reluctant many individuals are to learning new computer programs!)
Finally, if you want to be your own CTO at any level of your business development, you need to be willing to learn. You’ll want to read trade journals, scour the Internet, attend conferences, and find a mentor. Your mentor could be an industry colleague or a good business coach. You can’t expect yourself to know every SaaS option available to you for every service you’ll need, but you should know who to talk to and how to search for sound advice.
Having a creative and active CTO is essential for success today. Is that person you? If so, know your role, take it seriously, and get ready for some challenging ventures.