First, let's start by talking about what a CTO is not.
2) From 1, it follows that the CTO is not necessarily the best engineer in the company.
Now, with that out of the way, what is a CTO, if not the best writer of code and natural conclusion of the engineering ladder?
The challenge with defining CTO is that if you look across the folks who hold that title you will see many different manifestations. Some are the technical cofounders. Others were the best of the early engineers. Some started at the company with the title, while others such as myself were promoted into it over time. Some became CTO after holding the title of VP of Engineering. Some focus on the people and processes of engineering, hiring/recruiting. Others focus on the technical architecture, or the product roadmap. Some are the face of the company to the outside technical world. Some CTOs have no direct reports, others manage the entire engineering organization.
In looking at these examples the best definition that we can make is that the CTO is the technical leader the company has in its current stage of evolution. To me, that is rather unsatisfying, and missing the hardest part of the job. I believe instead that the CTO should be the strategic technical executive the company needs in its current stage of evolution.
Strategic: Thinking about the longer-term, and helping to plan the future of the business and the elements that make that possible
Executive: Taking that strategic thinking and helping to make it real and operational by breaking down the problem and directing people to execute against it
So, what does a CTO actually DO?
First and foremost, a CTO must care about and understand the business, and have the ability to shape business strategy through the lens of technology. The CTO is an executive first, a technologist second. If the CTO does not have a seat at the executive table and does not understand the business challenges the company is facing, there is no way the CTO can guide the technology to solve those problems. The CTO may identify areas where technology can be used to create new or bigger lines of business for the company that align with the overall company strategies. Or the CTO may simply ensure that the technology is always evolving to anticipate and enable the potential futures of the business and product roadmap.
No matter what, the CTO must understand where the biggest technical opportunities and risks for the business are and focus on capitalizing on them. When you see a CTO focused on recruiting, retention, process and people management, that is because it is the most important thing for the technology team to focus on at the time.
Strong CTOs also have significant management responsibility and influence. This does not always mean that they are deeply involved in the day to day management, but part of maintaining your ability to shape the direction of the business and the business strategy is the ability to put people behind solving the problems you believe will impact the business. Other executives will have ideas and needs for technology. The CTO must protect the technology team from becoming a pure execution arm for ideas without tending to its own needs and its own ideas.
Things get tricky when the team grows to be very large, and the CTO starts to hire VPs to manage all the people. Many CTOs give up all of their management responsibilities to their VPs, sometimes going so far as to not even have the VPs reporting to them. It is incredibly difficult to maintain influence and effectiveness as an executive with no reporting power.
I saw this clearly at my previous employer, where the most senior members of the technical staff in large business areas would often hold the title of CTO for that area. These people were always highly respected and technically capable. They understood the business and the technical challenges for the business, and were often called upon to help inspire the engineering team and help with recruiting.
Their downfall was that they often lacked the direct management oversight of any teams, and because technology was frequently viewed as an execution arm, they did not have much strategic influence.
If you are a leader with no power over business strategy and no ability to allocate people to important tasks, you are at best at the mercy of your influence with other executives and managers, and at worst a figurehead. You cannot give up the responsibility of management without giving up the power that comes with it.
The CTO who does not also have the authority of management must be able to get things done purely by influencing the organization. If the managers won't actually give people and time to work on the areas that the CTO believes are important, the CTO is rendered effectively powerless. If you give up management, you're giving up the most important power you ever had over the business strategy, and you effectively have nothing but your organizational goodwill and your own two hands. Hope you're really a 10X engineer!
My advice for aspiring CTOs is to remember that it's a business strategy job, first and foremost. It's also a management job. If you don't care about the business your company is running, if you're not willing to take ultimate responsibility for having a large team of people effectively attacking that business, then CTO is not the job for you.
Special thanks to my editors Amanda Peyton, Cate Huston and EIC ChrisK.