Originally published on PURE LAMBDA
Time is a critical resource for all. I would say, more valuable than money. You can always earn more money but when time is gone, it cannot be earned back.
As a CTO, what skills should you develop and what should you spend your time on ?
There are three stages in the career of a CTO.
- From 0 to 10 engineers
- From 5 to 300 engineers
- From 100 and beyond
I know, the ranges overlap. It is on purpose. The transitions are, well, transitions. Your responsibilities and missions won’t change instantly from one to another, there will be blurry periods where you have to wear all the hats. The numbers are also approximations, the boundaries between stages have to “feel right” and will depend on a lot of factors, such as the culture of the company, the market, B2C vs B2B, etc…
I would like to point out before we start that ALL the skills are required. I am talking about the focus for each stage but all the skills from all the stages are always needed, only in different importance.
And one note on vocabulary:
- User: entity (person or company) using your product(s) or service(s)
- Customer: entity (person or company) paying you and generating income
Depending on the company, those two entities may or may not be the same. However, for the sake of simplicity, when I talk about users, I will mean both users and customers every time unless specified otherwise.
Stage 1: From 0 to 10 engineers
In this stage, the goal is to reach Product Market Fit. To achieve this, the company needs to get feedback from the market. This means the product needs to be used by users.
Here is the chain of dependencies:
This is obviously summarized, but it gives you an idea of the process.
To achieve this cycle, when the startup is in early stages with few engineers on staff, you will have to get your hands dirty and most likely write some code yourself.
The critical skills for you to have for this stage will be:
- Development skills & Technical knowledge: To either implement the MVP (Minimum Valuable Product) yourself or being able to choose a vendor to implement it for you or even dig into no-code platforms
- Speed: The race to Product Market Fit can be more or less intense depending on the market your company is targeting. But being first to market is always a huge advantage
- Flexibility & Perseverance: You will have to be ready to throw code away and restart several times until you get it right. It is part of the process.
PURE LAMBDA can provide guidance in this stage to help you pick the right tech stack and brainstorm features to reach Product Market Fit faster.
Stage 2: From 5 to 300 engineers
At this stage, you must have had some kind of funding (pre-seed, A or B) and have several users and returning users.
The end goal of this stage is to build solid foundations to grow the company to infinity and beyond.
To achieve this, you will have to grow your engineering department, which means focusing on employee acquisition and retention. To keep the company alive you will also need to focus on user acquisition and retention.
But as the business grows, it will be impossible to manually oversight each part of the company. This is where all your skills will be required to automate the startup.
Some people call this the CTO Career Chasm, I like to call it a transition from Maker to Thinker. it is the same concept.
In the previous stage of the company you were on your keyboard very often, writing code and building the product. Now, you need to focus on the operation and the decision rather than the implementation.
You will spend most of your time in meetings to design and think through the product features, some of the technical decisions and most importantly: designing scalable systems and processes.
Those processes will be critical to define the success of your company. They will decide the way employees are interviewed, on-boarded and evaluated. They will also determine how the product is built: from how the code is merged up to how user feedback is treated.
Your set of skill will need to include:
- Leadership: To motivate and empower your team and allow each members of your organization to become the best version of themselves
- Delegation: In the first stage every decisions had to go through you but now you have hired smart people to make decisions for you, let them do the things you hired them for
- Time management: Managing your time will be essential, you will have a lot to do between setting processes, looking after the development of the product and interviewing candidates. You will have to identify your strength and value add and focus your time where you make a real difference while delegating the rest to the right people
PURE LAMBDA can provide guidance in this stage to help you set up the right processes and build solid foundations to grow to the next stage.
Stage 3: From 100 engineers and beyond
At this stage, your company is on the right path to success. You are a key player in your field and market but competition is fierce. Hiring engineers is a battle with your competitors and differentiating your company is critical to acquire and retain your users and employees.
There are several tools at your disposal to help you in becoming the leader of your market.
You will have to work hard on the image of your company: the values, the culture and the mission. This will become one of your main focuses from this moment onward. You will spend some of your time in conferences, writing articles and doing public speaking appearances to reinforce the brand of your company.
The second thing in your agenda will be to drive your company and build a long term vision. Making long term goals and plans to become the leader in your field.
Your responsibilities will naturally evolves from Stage 2 to this stage with newly acquired skills:
- Visionary: Looking at trends in your field will become a main part of your daily routine to be able to adapt your product to the evolving market and technologies
- Leadership & Delegation: Once again you will have to empower and inspire other to implement your vision of the future while delegating the implementation to the right member of your team
- Public Relation: A big part of your work will be to inspire others, internally within your company but also externally to attract users to your product and talents to your organization
PURE LAMBDA can provide guidance in this stage to help you develop the right management skills and become a great leader.
I summarized all the information contained in this article in a small table to have all in one place: