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Startup CTOs: Stop Getting Attached to your Work

Charlie Sammonds
May 29, 2019 · 5 min read

In an increasingly connected, technology-driven economy, the importance of the Chief Technology Officer has skyrocketed. The CTO is responsible for both the technology the business sells and the technology it uses to function. In 2019, these are among the most important strategic decisions a startup will have to make if it is to beat the odds and survive.

As with any key position in a startup, the CTO’s responsibilities will evolve with the business. The CTO must walk a tightrope between keeping up with changing technological needs and retaining balance in an organisation.

Don’t Get Attached

In the early days of a company, the CTO will have a hands-on, direct input into the technological architecture. In smaller startups, they may even be solely responsible for building it. It is only natural, then, that they might be protective of that architecture as the company grows. They will know how the frameworks functions, they will have inducted new hires into how it works, and they may be resistant to see it radically changed.

This is a mistake. Making big decisions about technology acquisitions is one of the most important parts of a CTO’s job, with an ever-expanding selection of platforms from which to choose. Adopting new technologies with scale in mind should be a priority for any startup CTO, but circumstances can change and no technology stack should be set in stone.

Software that works in a business’ embryonic stages might not be a good fit for a multinational company. It’s often a budgeting issue — the best software costs money. Similarly, building a fit-for-purpose infrastructure from scratch is, realistically, going to take a full team of talented developers — something not every startup has access to.

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At the 2017 FirstMark CTO Summit, Eric Muntz, VP of engineering at MailChimp, gave a presentation explaining how the marketing automation platform keeps its technology up to scratch and ensures it can always deliver what is a vital service for an ever-increasing number of other companies.

There is an ongoing debate over how important it is to regularly update and revisit your product. According to Eric, though, there is no question that rewriting the product is paramount. MailChimp did so in 2008, reacting to the changing needs of their customers. This newer stack set them up for a decade of success that would otherwise have been either impossible or severely delayed. Customers needs change. CTOs must be prepared to revisit a product they spent time building to ensure they stay relevant.

Keeping It Simple Can Be Vital

The need to keep moulding and reforming your tech stack comes with a caveat, though. Eric Muntz explains that CTOs must embrace ‘boring technology.’ MailChimp may not have the most exciting technology stack, but it is an extremely important, functional service that delivers a billion emails every day. An update to Salesforce may not be as exciting as introducing an entirely new component in your stack, but it will get the job done just as effectively.

The tech industry is often guilty of chasing the next shiny thing for fear of being left behind by a game-changer. This often means that emerging technologies get applied to areas which they ultimately have no future in. Just because a piece of emerging tech is going to be important doesn’t mean it’s the answer for your industry.

New tech will eventually have company-wide ramifications, too. For that reason, as this blog post outlines in great detail, adding new tech into the mix is something that should be visible company-wide. This is much easier to achieve in a smaller organisation, but it should not be forgotten as a company grows. Because of the potential for disruption, CTOs should consider how necessary a new technology is for addressing a specific problem, as opposed to finding a solution within the already-established tech stack. Adding in or switching tech should consider not only those directly facing the problem, but those that will be affected down the line.

Accept a Changing Role

It’s important that a CTO knows when to step away from the everyday management of the code itself. As the company grows around them, a common mistake CTOs make is to fail to grow their role alongside it. Often, they are still attached to the development side, rather than management — building an engineering team, company strategy, developing processes, etc.

At some point, the CTO is going to have to focus on the bigger picture rather than the individual lines of code. Particularly when the CTO has been with the company since its early stages, there can be a tendency for them to be reluctant to relinquish day-to-day control of the development work being done, but it’s a necessary step to take. Putting in place a talented and responsible team of developers will free up time to focus on pressing strategic decisions, like adopting new technologies.

One way that CTOs can stay ahead of potential problems is to adopt a functionally pessimistic mindset. Eric Muntz also detailed that MailChimp has applied a mentality of “What’s going to break?” in his entire time there. The company has built an offline data recovery system, along with planning ahead to increase bandwidth for particularly busy periods on the software. Assuming that their ordinary set up would be able to handle the holiday season, for example, could be costly if the system is then overloaded.

The job of a startup CTO is all about balance. Technological decisions need to be made based on both projections for the future and the current situation of the business. Having the perfect tech stack lined up to fit the thriving multinational you hope your startup will become is useless if it doesn’t fit now. Equally, not being willing to adapt and augment your code as the business expands is a recipe for disaster.

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