Do I Really Need a CTO?

Do I Really Need a CTO?

Do I need a CTO? I get asked this question frequently, mostly by first-time entrepreneurs. They have a killer idea for an app that will sweep the market, but need technical resources to build it. Do they hire in engineers for in-house development? If so, who leads them? Do they outsource the development, and if so, should they in-shore or off-shore? Do they architect for on-prem or in the cloud? And what should they build? What's too much and what's too little?

A veteran CTO certainly can answer those questions, informed by their prior experience. Obviously the ideal situation is to have a talented full time CTO who has the wisdom and experience to provide the correct answers. Bad technical decisions in the beginning can decelerate or even kill the business: with the right person one tends to get the right decisions. But one pays for that experience: CTOs who have done it before can cost a major part of an early startup's budget.

Or, one can go with a less experienced CTO. Sometimes these CTO's are Tech Leads, sometimes they are more senior developers or managers stepping up to the role. These younger CTOs can have great energy and commitment to the idea and the vision, but may not have the experience with multiple technologies and platforms, and more importantly may not have made the mistakes to see a large enough picture that helps inform the right call. CTOs will decide based on their past experience, and the experience of their cohort: if they have less experience, and a narrower cohort, then may make a decision based on that smaller knowledge set.

A third choice is to do without a CTO, don't hire an internal team without a senior leader, and instead hire an outsource firm to make those decisions and build what is needed. However, even straight-up, honest, well-intentioned shops may have limited capabilities in certain technologies, that can unconsciously affect their decisions. Additionally, outsource firms always have to balance which client gets what done, given their usually limited resources. One needs an intermediary with experience with outsourcing, who can act as an advocate and a reality check that can mediate between what can and cannot be reasonably done, within a given time line.

A consulting CTO is a way to get the expertise and wisdom of a senior experienced tech executive, without encumbering the cost of having to pay for that expertise full time. An experienced CTO can be very effective, and can significantly contribute even though they are not working in the office day to day. Where their expertise is most needed is in strategic meetings, interactions with third parties like outsource teams, VC, customers, etc. which can be done in time-boxed, concentrated intervals that limit the hours. A consulting CTO can act as a sounding board to a CEO, and can serve as a checks-and-balance system with the rest of the senior team. He or she can do design & code reviews, write functional and architecture specs, and help hire an in-house engineering team, or recommend an outsourcing shop. And if one can find the right consulting CTO first, this person can be a huge help with finding the right full-time CTO, when the time and money comes.
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