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Transitioning From a Co-Founder to a CTO

Career Path

13 August, 2020

Philip Camilleri
Philip Camilleri

Cofounder and CTO at Founderslist

Philip Camilleri, Co-Founder and former CTO at SmartAsset, and now CEO at Founderslist, recalls his own experience of transitioning from a technical co-founder to a CTO while emphasizing how working on the code is the polar opposite of managing people.

Problem

Being a co-founder of a company of two people is tremendously different from being a CTO of a company of less than a dozen people, or a few hundred people. Initially, I thought the process would follow some natural progression, but it certainly doesn’t always seem to be the case. I had to invest myself in training and gain more experience which required a concerted effort.

The main challenge for me was that in the early days, I was entirely immersed in working on the product, and as we grew as a company I had to shift my focus on managing people. That meant that I had to let go of coding and dedicate myself to leading other people.

Actions taken

As a co-founder, I was emotionally attached to my product. Therefore, early on I tried to hire people who would think alike, do things or code like me. I thought it would be far easier to collaborate with people who would share my views and understanding of problems. As I was attached to the code and how things were structured, I struggled a lot to give up control and ownership of the code. It took me a long time to accept that every person had its own way of doing things. I should have learned much earlier that there are at least 12 ways of solving one same coding problem and that all of them are equally good and efficient.

I knew how vitally important it was to hire people who I could trust would perform well and who would share my values. For example, I like to be highly efficient and would rather avoid complicating things and innovation for its own sake. I was never into overengineering and I always adhered to being frugal and constructive.

At the very beginning, I was familiar with every single piece of the code and was still able to track it with two or three more developers around. As the team grew I was less and less able to follow on every single change. Moreover, I had to start delegating tasks to other people who I could trust would do a good job. I encouraged their sense of ownership especially among new people who were joining the team. I wanted to stay a bit more involved with the code, partially because I enjoyed it but more importantly because I felt I could contribute and help people with technical problems bouncing ideas off, but eventually letting them decide on solutions.

It took me a while to realize that I didn’t have to know every little detail of a project or to be at every single meeting and I was supported by an executive coach who helped me overcome my own barriers. He helped me feel better about delegating tasks while providing the team with tools and environment that would enable them to take their own share of responsibility.

Lessons learned

  • I loved my product and ultimately, as a CTO, I was responsible for it, but I had to learn to trust the people I hired. To be able to do so, I had to be sure that they were the right people who would be responsible for their work.
  • Getting external help is of vital importance for people who, in the past, focused only on tech aspects of things, and as they transitioned to a CTO role had to expand their responsibilities to managing people. Coaches or Plato mentors could be of great help in guiding you through the transition, as working with computers is almost the polar opposite of working with people. You have to be very sensitive to how other people are thinking, what their needs are, and how to communicate on those things. I, like many other tech people, lacked the necessary communication skills and being able to consult with someone and work gradually to improve on them was very useful.
  • In the early stages, what you want to build is pretty much all in your head. You know what you want to make and you build it. As the team grows you have to build a process that would enable the contribution of every person on the team and allow visibility for everyone else.

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