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The Ambiguous Role of a CTO

Leadership
Career Path

17 May, 2021

Dale Hopkins
Dale Hopkins

CTO at Vendasta

Dale Hopkins, CTO of Vendasta, dissects the ambiguous role of a CTO and explains how by trifurcating into managing people, technology, or customers, it becomes more context-dependent and defined by personal competencies.

Problem

Understanding the role of a CTO is always an interesting challenge. In most cases, you need to ask a person what they do to get an understanding. When someone says they are a VP or Director of Engineering, or an EM, it is largely obvious what their job is. With a CTO, you have to ask to understand.

In my particular case, the CTO role oversees the technology strategy for our company, but I also have input and help with the process side. I am mainly focused on technology and where it goes for our company.

Actions taken

First and foremost, one needs to understand what kind of a CTO they are. In most cases, the role trifurcates into managing people, technology, or customers, as the title itself doesn’t reveal what a person does. For people new into the role, it is important to understand that role is not fixed and clearly defined. They should have a clear understanding of the distinct approach to the role they have, which is context-dependent and differs from one company to another.

In practice, the role could take on different forms. A CTO could have a VP of Engineering to manage the people side of the business, or they would perform the role of people management while a chief architect would focus on technology. Moreover, sometimes a CTO would be in charge of being a public face of a company. A company comes to mind that targets developers and whose CTO is doing development advocacy; thus, their name is strongly associated with the company brand.

While this trifurcation to a certain extent has to do with professional competencies and affinities, doing all of those is difficult, if not impossible. Many leaders are perplexed about which one to choose to be their primary focus. Like many other leaders, I am under pressure to part take in all three, but I established a separate group that manages the outward-facing, customers side of things. I would show up sporadically in meetings with customers and engage in a conversation with them, but I am not a developer advocate at our company. We have a different group that focuses on that every day, all day. I didn’t entirely abdicate that aspect of the role, but it is not part of my day-to-day responsibilities. On the other side, I am working diligently to hire directors of engineering and ensure that we have people who will be managing people and processes within our organization. That allows me to focus more on technology but also to support the work of our ICs.

The problem appears when someone succumbs to pressure and agrees to do all three. It is possible to be good at all three, but it is impossible to be great. There are many ways to make the right choice. The most common one is to find an alignment between what you like and what you are good at. Don’t pick only the one you are good at because that is not wise long-term. But, choosing any is better than balancing all of them. Once you make your choice, hire people to fill in the other positions or allocate those responsibilities to other managers.

Lessons learned

  • Deciding on one seems obvious, yet most people have to learn it the hard way. Almost everyone will try to do it all at once, at least for a while, because that is something people will learn only by failing. My advice is: don’t feel bad that you have to focus on one. Also, this is not a battle you can win without support from people across your organization. Giving up on some responsibilities means that you will have to find people willing to cover those areas.
  • Introspection is something people often don’t take seriously and rarely practice. It is time-consuming, and many people would rather avoid being critical to themselves, which is a key ingredient for understanding what kind of a CTO you are/should be. Admitting that they can’t do something is probably not easy for many people. But acknowledging that you have a problem is the first step in fixing the problem.
  • Multitasking never turns out well in Engineering. There is no shame in choosing what you love to do and what you are good at. It’s a far more commendable choice than balancing the three while failing to excel at whatever you think the focus should be.

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