It’s no secret that finding good software engineers isn’t easy. But finding a good Chief Technology Officer, or CTO, is a whole new type of difficult. As the person in an executive-level position who focuses on the scientific and technological issues of the company, soft skills and leadership skills are even more crucial than what may be expected from the other engineers.
From a technical standpoint, the CTO must have a holistic understanding of the entire application to properly make the right architecture decisions for both the short and long term. Despite the importance of those qualities in a CTO, however, this article will focus on one skill that is oftentimes overlooked: knowing what not to build and spend time on.
In a word: focus.
In order to understand why this particular skill is so essential for a CTO, let's reflect on why it’s important for a company more broadly:
In the early stages of a startup, one of the biggest threats is getting pulled in too many directions. Time and money are finite resources and the company’s success will largely be dependent on the accumulation of how those resources are allocated.
If every startup that ever existed listed their challenges, I am willing to bet that not a single one would be “if only we had more ideas or more features to build.” The problem is always the opposite, and spending time building something that doesn’t directly solve your customer’s problem can kill your company.
The CEO has the responsibility to steer the team in the right direction, but in many ways, they are in a difficult position. They need to be constantly selling and inspiring: to investors, to clients, and to future hires. This comes with constant discussion and feedback.
The CTO, on the other hand, is in a position where they get more time alone in front of the computer or with the core team. They are protected in many ways. A good CTO recognizes this, appreciates the work that the CEO is putting in, and returns value to the company in a way equally as important, through constant obsession with focus.
Knowing when to say ‘no’ and even how to say ‘no’ are skills that are invaluable to the startup.
There’s another reason that the CTO should serve as the team’s “chief officer of focus”:
Lack of team direction and focus usually translates to vague feature ideas, or even worse, a plethora of disconnected features that try to solve multiple problems at the same time. There are not many things more specific than writing code, so if a product feature/idea is too vague, the CTO should immediately recognize this because it will be unclear how to start building in the first place.
A good CTO brings this concern up early to the team and is constantly on the hunt to eliminate “vagueness” from the upcoming list of features to work on. Every developer knows that writing code that never ends up getting used sucks.
Just like a CEO can inspire like-minded sellers and evangelists to join the startup, a good CTO can pull in developers who are not only technically strong, but focused and obsessed with constantly improving the way the product solves the customer or end user’s problem. The CTO’s obsession with focus, and knowing when to say “no,” has an exponential effect, as this approach will trickle-down to the entire dev team.
The importance of focus for a CTO is abundantly clear to me after my experience with my first startup. After three and a half years of ups and downs, the start-up shuttered and I reflected on how much time I spent on things that ultimately didn’t secure the longevity of the business. After learning the hard way, I’ve developed the ability to discern and focus on what really matters.
It’s the CTO who can be the lead voice of reason, and who can serve as the Jedi of focus for your startup, which will ultimately be one of the main success factors.