WTF is a CTO?

Over the last 3 years I built our startup taking on multiple roles, engineer + VP of engineering + CTO, I’m finally transitioning to being a full time CTO. Funny enough, I kind of always disliked the CTO title. This is probably because this is one of the most poorly defined titles out there. It doesn’t seem to mean anything, or maybe it just means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It also changes based on the company’s development phase and the personality of the CTO. But instead of spending time complaining about how misused/abused the term is, let’s see how this change will affect Splice and I.

Splice now has its first VP of engineering: Juan Pablo Buriticá. There is often a lot of confusion between the roles of a VP of engineering and a CTO. So let me clarify, for me, what the VP should focus on:
 * people
 * now
 * deliverables
while the CTO should focus on:
 * technology
 * the future
 * enabling business opportunities

Investing in a “people architecture”

These two sides of an engineering organization have always been a challenge for me. I invested a lot in our technology architecture (and it paid off) but I knew that we needed to invest the same energy in our “people architecture” if we wanted to scale. Having a good design and foundation is critical to good software. If you don’t have that and your company becomes successful, you will need to do a rewrite. Doing full rewrites is a dangerous, slow, expensive and scary thing. The same rule applies to building an engineering team. I won’t name any but I am sure you’ve seen your share of startups that hired a bunch of smart people, tried to keep everything flat and realized it wasn’t working out. Deliverables & morale went down, they had to rethink their entire organization… in other words, they had to do a full rewrite and it came at a huge cost.

“Head or gut?” — Bruce Willis

Doing day-to-day work as well as going deep in technical solutions & making long term technical decisions is really hard. These things are in constant conflicts. But at the beginning of a startup, you don’t have a choice and it comes at a cost that will directly affect one of these 2 areas: your technology or your people. Not a great choice is it? But it is the sad truth and the more people you add, the harder it gets. Which is one of the reasons I kept the team relatively small even if we had so much to do.

Being an enabler

Juan Pablo brings his technical and managerial expertise as well as his deep care for building up and supporting an amazing engineering team. With him on board I really feel that we can scale the team without putting more strain on each individual. But more than that, I feel that I wasn’t the manager I wanted to be and I didn’t have enough time to go deep on really hard technical problems that could be extremely beneficial to the company. Not being a great manager has always been one of my flaws and something I wanted to improve on. I never had great managers and I wanted to break the cycle. I’m told that part of being a leader means finding better people than you and empower them to do their job the best they can. I can’t be more thrilled to have Juan Pablo join us, scale and make our team and each individual member even better.

So Juan Pablo is going to take over the day-to-day: one on ones, backlog grooming, delivery process, ownership and accountability… These things honestly take a lot of my time, so with those gone, what’s left for me?

My mission is to discover and be responsible for the implementation of technical solutions that move the needle

Defining my role

To me, my #1 role is to leverage technology to serve our business. That sounds really vague so let me try to clarify what I mean:
My mission is to discover and be responsible for the implementation of technical solutions that move the needle at a company level. But be warned, there is a big distinction between this and R&D. In R&D, you are trying things that might move the needle (and you aren’t usually responsible for implementing them) when as a CTO, I place bets that have to be closely related to business goals and deliver them in the short/medium term. My failures or successes have a direct effect on the company.

It’s all about business

Being a CTO is a strategic role, it’s not about picking the absolute best programming language, container solution or cloud vendor. It’s not even about evangelizing my engineering vision or reading hundreds of white papers to become the most knowledgeable engineer in the team, it’s about making the right business decisions. My role is not to “make it happen”, this is what a VP of engineering is responsible for. My role is to make sure we are making the right business decisions and we have a plan on how to implement them. My role is also to find new opportunities by leveraging technology. But I can’t do that without a great CEO, a great VP and a great team and lots of trust going around.

This is why it’s such a hard job, you have to be able to understand and appreciate things from a business and technical perspective. You have to deconstruct and reconstruct the technical challenges and solutions linked to each possibility and quickly evaluate the risk/reward factor of each. You often need to say no and explain in simple terms why you think the risk is probably too great. You have to have a great relationship with the CEO so these discussions don’t turn in continuous battles and you need to have a strong trust relationship with the VP of engineering so your decisions can be backed by the team and value can be delivered promptly.

On one hand, you are representing the technology and the engineers, fighting for low tech debts, exciting solutions and utopic technical perfection while on the other, you are representing the business with its objectives, revenue goals and market opportunities. As far as I’m concerned, the CTO role might the most schizophrenic C-suite position out there and I’m looking forward to continue exploring the essence of my role as Splice and I evolve.

Note: There is another entire discussion about knowing when your company should split these roles. What are the signs, how did it go for Splice/me. Let me know if you’d be interested in a follow up post. — Update: I posted a follow up post regarding timing.