What does it take to become a CTO?

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Tamara Atanasoska is the co-organizer of the meetup Stacktrace. Stacktrace explores the CTO position by discussing a CTO’s typical day-to-day activities and its challenges. The meetup’s goal is to shed light on what can you can expect, and how you can perform better as a CTO. Speakers from the tech community are invited to give talks and engage with members in a discussion.

It seems like software engineers take less time to think about and plan their career progression than other professionals. For example, bankers without a clear path and a specific goal can get stuck in the status quo for years. On the other hand, for software engineers, the leap from total beginner, to Junior, to Senior, and maybe even Lead can be very straightforward, as it implies using and improving one type of skill set. But what comes next?

One of the possible positions to strive for is the role of the CTO. Each one of us has our own idea about what a CTO does. Some think that working as a CTO would give them a lot of power to make autonomous technical decisions. Others think that CTOs just run around, talk, and don’t do much. How can we strive for something we don’t fully understand? And how do we know if the role actually suits us?

Let’s make this clear: You don’t have to be a “coding superstar” to be a good CTO. You don’t have to have a herd of followers and a community that is in awe of you (although that certainly doesn’t hurt). You can also know and accept your limitations, surround yourself with better programmers than you, and be a good listener when decisions have to be made. The reasoning behind this is that being a CTO is not just about coding. It is also about the people.

A CTO must always have the bigger picture in mind. The role requires a constant balance between technical and people skills. One important responsibility is to have a handle on the small and individual ongoing processes in the company, while at the same time thinking if they are in line with the greater mission. Effective CTOs view technology as fundamentally supporting the business – not the other way around.

The CTO is the one that makes everyone involved believe in the mission and motivates the team to strive and meet the challenges set.

Here are a four valuable points that have been shared at Stacktrace on the CTO’s role:

1. You need technical proficiency.

       As mentioned previously, this doesn’t mean that you have to be a programming genius, but you need to understand your stack very well. It is important to know how long your team will need to develop something and what the best ways of doing that are. A CTO should foresee any potential challenges. In addition to the the actual implementation, you need to make sure that the architecture design fits the technical vision and that it is very inline with the business strategy.

       Ramzi Rizk, CTO at EyeEm, went deeper into this subject during his Stacktrace talk. You can check out the recording of his talk and fruitful discussion afterwards here.

2. You need to be resourceful.

          You can’t know the answer to every question, but you can be open and listen to ideas from others. Your team and business need options to be able to grow, and you need to be able to provide them. Approaching challenges with a positive attitude is a good way to go.

        Jesper Richter-Reichhelm, Director or Engineering at Wooga, spoke at Stacktrace about the Wooga way. Best practices include encouraging everyone to join the discussion on future development and sharing responsibility. Find out more about the talk here.

3. You need to scale (but with lots of care!).

           As a CTO, you need to grow your servers and you need to take care that your code can keep up with incoming users. However, you must also grow and develop your team. With only tech in mind, you are in danger of creating a culture that could hurt future growth.

        We had Oliver Seemann, CTO at Adspert, sharing some of its routine working tips that concern people and code. Listen to the whole talk here.

4. Never lose the financial/tech balance.

           Remember that the technology that you are building is just a tool. A CTO must at all times be customer-focused and give precedence to user needs. There are certain factors that can prevent us from achieving “state of the art” code. It is important to work with the money available to extract the most business value from it, and become closer to fulfilling what was planned.

Beyond these points, there is more to learn and discuss. Every CTO has their own style in dealing with the bigger picture and daily tasks. It is a complex but very rewarding position. Learning more about it can help us pace our career path towards it more effectively.

The next Stacktrace meetup will be at Hub:raum, 3rd of February 2015. We have Mathias Meyer, CEO at Travis CI, speaking. Please RSVP here.

Image Credit: Stacktrace

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