When thinking about your startup management team composition, hiring a new CTO, or hiring your first engineering manager (or VP of engineering, or head of [tech]), it is important to find someone that complements the skills of the other management team members. After talking to a wide variety of CTO’s and other management team members, it occurred to me that CTOs differ in three main areas: entrepreneurship, people management and product.
The way I see it, all CTO’s should have a strong technical background to be able to fullfil their primary objective:
- Leading the engineers
- setting the technology vision and strategy for the company
- creating an engineering culture with some balance between speed (move fast and break things) and quality (ultra reliable software, like in medical, or cars).
However, the second skill they bring most predominantly to the table, is what determines if that new CTO, or that new head of [x] that is going to work with your CTO, is going to be a good fit.
The entrepreneurs are the real company builders. The hustlers during the early days, and the “C-level” quality in the more mature phase. They can pitch the company to anyone, talk to investors and understand high level market trends. They also have a lot of COO qualities, like being able to structure the organization into teams, creating reporting lines, goal structures (like OKRs), designing a company rhythm.
The people managers get things done through their teams. They care most about having great people on the team, bad people off the team. They know that for the engineering teams to be successful, they need to be happy, energized, and most of all: enabled. The more experienced ones give great performance reviews (even if it’s a tough conversation), have a system to keep a pulse on everybody’s well being, and are aware of conflicts and issues / personal development plans that are in place.
They are typically also very involved in hiring, onboarding, and company culture, as those are important tools for them to reach their goal.
The product managers are above all else concerned with the product. They intimately know the customers, the backlog, open issues, and the larger road map. They bring a ton of value because they can combine what is possible with engineering, with what the customer wants. The best ones I know come up with easy-to-build solutions that have real customer impact all the time.
They are also aware of the competition, and find it easy to explain the key benefits of the product (or even sell the product).
In my experience, any mix can be extremely powerful in the right setting, but there can definitely also be a mismatch. For example, when you already have a great product manager and the CTO is also a product oriented person, this can lead to an over-focus, while the other areas are lacking behind. Same with an entrepreneurial CTO in a management team where they have no need for that extra “C-Power”, but are lacking product or people.
I think of myself as 50% Entrepreneur, 40% people, 10% product. That means I know I need a strong product manager to help me to make anything a success. This little framework has helped me filter new job opportunities, and better understand other companies as well.
If you are a CTO, or hiring a CTO, I hope this will help you shape your thoughts about the composition of your executive team.