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What Makes a Good CTO?

Working closely with dozens of CTOs in our portfolio got me thinking about what they have in common and what makes them better

By Stephan Schulze

I’ve recently marked my seventh anniversary at Project A, an excellent opportunity to reflect on my learnings.

Spending most of my time working closely with dozens of tech leads from our portfolio companies got me thinking about what makes a good CTO. Some were just starting their careers, still struggling to find their path, while others already had a track record in other companies.

But do they have some things in common? Characteristics that made them better and more successful?

Here are five traits and skills of a first-class tech leader:

  1. Engineering background: It might sound obvious, but it’s worth stating that you probably can’t lead engineering teams without having a deep, extensive, and up-to-date knowledge of software development.
  2. Resilient: Like any manager, CTOs must be forward-looking and determined, but more than others, they shouldn’t give up easily. A tech leader has to resemble well-built software: Solid, agile, and able to recover from a setback.
  3. Interdisciplinary: Technology is everywhere and affects everything, meaning you can’t advise which tool is best without considering and understanding product and business aspects.
  4. Approachable: Tech teams are as diverse as the software landscape they operate in, so leading them requires a person who can work and interact productively with juniors, seniors, and specialists with different personalities.
  5. Coherent: A CTO must be able to explain technical concepts to other stakeholders and speak their language.
  6. Data-driven: Part of having strong business acumen is knowing what’s important: Set the right KPIs, interpret various data points, and balance intuition with rationale.

These general attributes apply to all technical C-level people, but the importance of each item on the list shifts when we look at companies in different stages. Let’s re-arrange it according to a company’s maturity, from startups to scale-ups:

  • Pre-seed: You need to be super-technical, able to fill various senior engineering positions, and ready to be hands-on: Write code, set up infrastructure, etc.
  • Series A: As your team grows, you spend less time coding and focus more on software architecture while handling topics like delivery, budgeting, and hiring and managing developers.
  • Series B: Now’s the time to scale with your company–you need a strategic vision and a technical background that benefits the business. In other words, be someone who can see the bigger picture.

Which CTO are you? Do you see yourself on the list? Does your experience in startups match my assumptions? Share your thoughts on LinkedIn.