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Best Practices When Hiring a CTO


The CTO, or chief technology officer, is an unusual role. In many companies, there is no need for a CTO. While there is always a certain degree of technology involved in any business (even a sole proprietor needs to use software or mechanical equipment at some point), the role of technology in the business is often handled by the COO or even the CEO, as it’s not close enough to the core of the business to warrant adding another C-level executive to the team.

On the other hand, tech-focused companies (and especially startups) may have a CEO that is so heavily involved in the development of new technology that it makes more sense to delegate almost every other part of the business—including marketing, finance, and operations—before even thinking about handing technology off to someone else.

Hiring for your C-Suite - SelectOne

If you’re in the position of hiring a new CTO, here are a few best practices.

Think about your tech needs

Your CTO will most likely have a different career trajectory than most other members of the C-suite. They are less likely to have gone to business school), and more likely to have been a developer or engineer of some kind in the past. Exactly what kind of needs you have will depend on what your business does, what skills are already at your disposal, and where you would like to be in the future.

Knowing the role

In many companies, the CTO and the CIO (chief information officer) are the same role. In tech companies however, these may be separate roles. In this case, the CIO is focused primarily on internal IT infrastructure, while the CTO is pushing forward external technology intended for sale, licensing, or other commercial purpose.

If you are in fact a tech-focused company, you undoubtedly already have a team of engineers, developers, etc. You don’t need your CTO to do these things, because that’s not their role. It would be financially irresponsible to hire someone at the C-level to sit around coding all day. What you do need is someone who is capable of understanding what can be done. They should be experienced enough both as an individual contributor and as a manager to understand

  • What’s possible and impossible
  • Reasonable timeframes
  • How the tools are changing, including the latest trends
  • How the market for similar tech products is changing
  • Multiple ways of getting similar results
  • Firm barriers that make things impossible today that might not exist tomorrow

Only you can determine what kinds of tech skills your CTO needs to have. But what you’re looking for is someone with a history of technological innovation, not just projects completed. You should see this in their resume and portfolio, as well as through their interviews and when checking references.

Think about your leadership needs

So if the CTO isn’t just a developer or a project manager, what purpose do they serve? A good CTO is able to develop a vision for technology that isn’t hampered by current limitations. In many ways, this vision can have as profound an effect on a tech company as the CEO. The CEO should see a general direction, such as moving towards a subscription model for consumer products.

But the CTO is the person who will help to determine what form that movement will take. Where are you putting your research dollars? (And your research brains?) Where are you investing in training? What skills and areas of expertise are you hiring for?

There are plenty of stereotypical jokes about engineers and their social skills, but there are people out there who have the technical know-how, the strategic thinking, the ability to communicate clearly and effectively, and the ability to make good use of specialists with skills and knowledge that they don’t possess. Does this seem like a tall order? Of course. But this is why the CTO is a C-level executive. And anyone in the C-suite is, by default, somewhat remarkable.

Think about your cultural needs

Are you in a good place and expanding quickly, looking for someone who can get control of an innovative process while it’s happening? Do you need someone with a new perspectives to shake things up in an industry that’s been falling behind the rest of the world for the last several decades? Are you a startup where everyone wears a dozen hats throughout the course of the day? Or are you a large, established company where roles are clearly established and vigorously enforced?

It’s a mistake to imagine that all “technology” people are similar. Personality assessments, behavioral interview questions, and frank conversations about the reality can help you find the right person for the role.

Know when your reach isn’t long enough.

If you’re feeling stressed out trying to find the right person for your CTO opening, that’s not unusual. But the process doesn’t need to be DIY. SelectOne can help you find someone who meets your tech, leadership, and cultural needs. And we do it better than anyone else. If that sounds like the kind of help you can use, schedule your consultation.

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