How to Find the Right Chief Technology Officer


Last year, the Kauffman Foundation named four cities in Colorado (Boulder, Denver, Fort Collins/Loveland and Colorado Springs) to the Top 10 List for best cities for startups. With so many entrepreneurs looking to found startups—and because of the strong technology emphasis in today’s economy—I’m sometimes asked for advice on how to find a technical co-founder or chief technology officer.

I’ve been a software engineer and engineering manager for over 20 years. In that time I’ve worked for both successful and unsuccessful startups, and I’ve started two companies myself. Currently I’m the co-founder and co-managing partner of Cardinal Peak, a 12-year-old engineering services company that builds products for other firms—often startups. In my current consulting role, I’ve sometimes served as a temporary “virtual” CTO for companies as they figure out their business and product visions.

Before we get to the advice, it’s helpful to remember how some of the most successful startups started out. Back in the early days of the tech industry, the whole idea of founding a company without a technical visionary was ludicrous: The founders of Hewlett-Packard, Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel, Apple, Oracle, and Microsoft were all technical powerhouses in their own right. Steve Jobs was probably the least technical amongst that august group, and at the time of founding Apple he certainly knew a ton of engineering, even if he is remembered today as a visionary and marketing genius.

Those early tech companies all had science and engineering deep in their DNA. Take Intel: The immediate customer for a microprocessor is necessarily another engineer—so inherently Intel had to be completely technical.

In contrast, in the modern era a lot of “tech startups” revolve around less deeply technical business concepts. You might be tempted to think the technology matters less. Think of Amazon, a retailer at its core (though Jeff Bezos has an electrical engineering/computer science degree from Princeton). Or Netflix, where the original idea was to sell DVDs through the mail (though Reed Hastings has a masters in computer science from Stanford). Or Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, where the business plan revolves around the network effects inherent in social media (though their founders were mostly technical, too.)

As my parenthetical comments hint, I’ve got a strong bias that you are likely to need at least one member of your founding team who is a strong technology visionary and evangelist. Assuming you’re an entrepreneur with an idea, but you don’t have the technology visionary, how do you go about finding him or her? Here are some tips:

The CTO can’t be just an employee

If your startup is going to succeed, you need a CTO who is a co-founder and stands on equal footing with the CEO and other members of the founding team. You need someone you can trust, first and foremost. The ideal CTO will also be someone who both works together with the rest of the founding team well and also challenges your thinking. Finally, like all members of the founding team, the ideal CTO would have strong credentials (see above) that impress investors and customers.

The vision thing is important

It’s important, obviously, for a CTO to have deep technical expertise. A CTO has to be the company’s best technical salesperson. He or she doesn’t need to have traditional people skills—many great engineers lack social graces. But the CTO has got to be able to communicate the passion and company vision to investors, key customers, partners, and key recruits.

Is the candidate ready, willing, and able to grow with the position and company?

Many CTOs might start out writing code but pretty quickly will need to switch to a more visionary role. Good CTOs need to think about new technologies coming down the road and evaluate how they might affect (or could be adopted) by your company. Early on, the CTO might do all the heavy lifting, but he or she eventually must be able to let go of work and delegate it when the time comes or else you won’t be able to scale. While strong engineering talent is important, someone with the passion to be a hands-on engineer may not be the best choice for a CTO.

Is the candidate ready for a start-up?

Make sure the candidate you’re considering understands that a steady paycheck could be months or years away. Even when a paycheck is a reality, young companies typically can’t pay as much or provide the benefits of a Fortune 100 position. The CTO you select must be in a personal position where he or she can live with the risk inherent in your startup.

Some companies try to keep their technical co-founder employed in a day job until they land funding. I’d advise against having any members of the founding team do this, but especially not the CTO. As a young startup, you need to convince a lot of people to believe in you—everyone from landlords, to investors, to key employees, to key business partners. If the CTO doesn’t even believe in the idea enough to quit his job, that sends a very negative message.

Finally, do you need a CTO or do you need some technical help?

I’ve seen entrepreneurs hand out a CTO title—and that all-important founder’s position—to the wrong person. Normally the person who ended up with the CTO title was just too junior to scale to what this role really requires once the company started to gain altitude. Think of it this way: You don’t bring on a CFO just to file your taxes. It’s important to apply the same logic to the CTO position. Ask yourself: do you need a technical visionary to guide your company, or do you need someone to finish a coding project? The former requires a CTO, and the latter doesn’t.


Howdy Pierce is co-founder and managing partner of Cardinal Peak, a contract engineering firm in Lafayette, CO. Pierce's technical background is in multimedia systems, software engineering and operating systems. Follow @howdypierce

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