#TechTuesday: Why CTOs Should Step Away from the Code

shutterstock_89663734.jpg

Letting go isn’t always easy, but it’s critically important for the Chief Technology Officer of today. By Jeanine Swatton (Director of Developer Evangelism, Yodlee Interactive)

The expectations of the CTO are changing. It used to be that CTOs at early-stage companies were expected to code everything from the ground up, as I was. Now, CTOs are expected to be generalists who understand the code, but don’t necessarily perform every function of development. They truly are members of the C-level executive team, responsible for making decisions, creating culture, and – hard as it may be – delegating.

Great Expectations

In the past, a company’s technology stack was often defined based on the programming background of the CTO. For example, if the CTO were an expert in PHP, the back-end of the application would be built in PHP, without determining the right solution for a particular product. The CTO would receive the requirements and build out a wireframe for the product. Then, they would design the app or take on a contractor to put together the design.

Once the requirements, wireframes and designs were built out, the CTO did the coding, including construction of the schema for the database. There would be no formal testing practices in place, especially at an early stage by a QA team, so the CTO would take on the responsibility of testing as well. Finally, the CTO would also handle deployment of the app, and take on the role of performing updates and bug fixes after the release. Whew.

The Changing Role of the CTO

That approach is no longer effective in today’s technology environment. The explosive growth of cloud computing, processing power, big data and new programming languages have expanded and transformed the technology stack.

Technology is constantly changing – and fast. A CTO cannot be expected to be an expert in every aspect of development of a product. That would require being a full-stack engineer, data scientist and big data provider all rolled into one. There is just no time for CTOs to code and create from scratch. As a result, the role of the CTO is evolving into something new.

Becoming an Architect

The new CTO is an architect. They may not be the person actually using a hammer and nails, but they understand the greater vision for what needs to be built and they lay out the schema for turning that vision into a reality. In this new role, the CTO is responsible for guiding the technical direction of the team.

They ensure the solution fits the problem it aims to solve and fulfills larger organizational goals. The CTO also serves as a connector between the technical side of the organization and other departments, such as marketing or design, to keep everyone on the same page. They tell other members of the C-Suite when something isn’t feasible, and assess the chances of risk versus opportunity for technology-related ideas. The architect CTO is focused on the big picture.

Dwolla’s VP of Technology Arjun Jayaram is a big-picture CTO whom I personally admire. Far from getting bogged down in day-to-day challenges, he has a knack for keeping a high-level company perspective. He almost has a sixth sense when it comes to coordinating across teams in the organization to stay focused and working harmoniously toward a common goal.

To Build Or Not to Build

As discussed above, today’s CTO can’t be expected to solve every development challenge by themselves. Instead, their role is to search for smart solutions to address these challenges.

There is a wealth of products out there enabling development teams to buy, rather than build, what they need. Startups do not have to recreate existing technology, because they can implement turnkey solutions, such as an already-built API platform, for certain functions of their site.

This approach not only has the benefit of saving time, but it can also strengthen the startup’s product overall. A niche vendor is an expert in that particular area, and may offer more sophisticated technology than what a small startup could build on their own.

Another option is to take advantage of open source technologies, of which there are many. Today’s CTO is responsible for evaluating the open source solutions for the proposed implementation.

Creating Culture

Another aspect of the CTO’s new role is to build and manage a strong technical team, and cultivate the team’s culture. Many early stage companies suffer from “single coder syndrome” where they expect one person to code everything. However, this can slow the development process down if that person gets stuck on a problem. Software development is a collaborative process, where working together yields more creativity and better code.

Therefore, the new CTO has to assume the role of a facilitator – finding the technology, designing the strategy, and cultivating the environment that enables the developers to do their best work. They keep individuals and teams on track and on schedule.

The challenges of this role are becoming even more pronounced now that outsourcing developer teams is on the rise. It is up to the CTO to ensure everyone is happy, productive and doing their part to achieve the company’s goals.

Braintree’s Juan Benitez excels here. He’s established and cultivated a development team that’s become a well-oiled machine – the culture stays inclusive, dynamic and creative through all sorts of growth, acquisitions and transitions.

The new CTO has many roles, all which require stepping away from the code in order to excel. The best CTOs are the ones who are technical and love technology, but understand that they can better serve their organization as a leader and a visionary.

What other traits do great CTOs have?

Photo credit: artjazz via Shutterstock.


About the guest blogger: Jeanine Swatton is the Director of Developer Evangelism at Yodlee Interactive. She specializes in building mobile and web apps, and teaches iOS development and Ruby on Rails. Jeanine is involved in many organizations including Startup Monthly, the National Center for Women and Information Technology and Silicon Valley China Wireless.