Monday 14 October 2019

Finding a CTO means hiring a co-founder who cares about the firm

Tech spec: A successful CTO must be able to work at all levels on the technical side and be able to communicate the vision to clients and staff at sales meetings. Stock image
Tech spec: A successful CTO must be able to work at all levels on the technical side and be able to communicate the vision to clients and staff at sales meetings. Stock image

Richard Rodger

Last week I wrote about our current challenge - finding a CTO. I've been acting CTO for too long, and with the business starting to develop, my time is now too stretched to continue doing the job badly between sales meetings.

I've noticed an odd psychological phenomenon related to this problem. If I do technical work in the morning, I underperform on sales calls in the afternoon (which are usually to prospects in the US - not good).

If I do meetings in the morning with other living, breathing people, I can't write decent code in the afternoon.

It seems like there's a switch in your brain that tilts your style of thinking one way or the other, and resetting that switch requires, perhaps, sleep.

Perhaps this is part of the greater fallacy of believing that we are a single conscious whole with one fixed and stable mind.

Fragmented work is not conducive to good technical output - that much is certain.

As CEO there's no way to opt out for a day or two each week to go and code (except perhaps in the very early days), so the only solution is to hire a CTO.

In my article last week I outlined the skill set needed.

It requires not only the ability to define the technical architecture at a high level, but also the ability to descend into the bowels of the system.

And on the non-technical side, the ability to lead and manage a technical team, but also the ability to communicate the technical vision in public fora, in a direct personal way in sales meetings.

It is no small ask, and the pain of doing all these things means that your CTO should really be a co-founder.

So where do you find one? You have to start by having a clear idea of what you want. It is not an employee. That will not be enough.

To make the right decisions for a business, you need to have a stake in that business.

Irrespective of the share allocations, a co-founder is a co-founder, and that's what you need.

Be prepared to give up sufficient shares to make this happen but, more importantly, also be prepared in your own head to accept a partner in the business.

This is very different from hiring an employee. If you hire a CTO as an employee, especially at an early state, it won't work out.

You'll never be able to define the role fully or give sufficient direction - you can't make someone care if it's just a job.

Starting with this mentality will save you a lot of time. You'll quickly be able to tell in conversation with any potential prospect whether they are just looking for a job, or looking to be part of something bigger.

You can't make people want it either. Beware hiring brilliant coders who just want to code - that's not enough.

If you can't apply this filter, all the other activities to follow will just be a waste your time.

Let's find a CTO.

You have to let people know this is what you want. When you meet people and they ask you how business is going, don't say "Great!" Everybody says "great!", even when things are going really badly. Just come straight out with your biggest problem: "We need a CTO - we're in trouble without one."

This is far more likely to help you progress and the price is only a small piece of wounded pride.

I give this advice but follow it perhaps 5pc of the time myself, so I realise it is not an easy tactic to execute.

Nonetheless, you'll find most people are happy to help, it's a natural human thing. So just ask.

If you're looking for inspiration, there's a great book called 'The Art of Asking' by the singer and musician Amanda Palmer, that can really get you into the right mind-set to do this.

You can't meet people if you aren't meeting people. There's no way to avoid this part. You can't hire an effective CTO from a CV or a LinkedIn profile.

There are two primary channels to focus on.

First, use your own network. Sit down, and go through your network and work out who can help you connect with potential candidates.

This is just grunt work but it can have a high pay-off. You're not going in cold, and you can get personal recommendations.

As a secondary plus point, you'll be explaining your startup and reconnecting to many old friends and colleagues. This can be quite fun and open up other opportunities.

Second, you have to join technical communities that your target CTO will be in. That means going to meetups and events in the technical space.

If you're a regular reader you'll know I'm flogging a dead horse on this one. To really lay on the cheese, let's throw in that Woody Allen quote: "80pc of life is just showing up". It's cheesy, but true. Just turning up does work.

Choose events that relate to the technology domain of your startup. Try out different meetups to see which ones have more traction and a more experience audience.

Go for a drink afterwards. Once again, just be absolutely direct about what you are there for: finding a CTO - this is perfectly fine. A lot of the techies are there to find jobs, or at least to keep an eye on the market.

Once you have generated a few interesting candidates, you'll need to reel them in.

This is a sales process. You have to sell the company, and yourself, to them.

Don't make the mistake of thinking it's the other way around.

Startups are fragile, unproven, and represent a huge opportunity cost in lost salary. No matter how great your idea, and how wonderful your execution to date has been, you still have to pitch.

Being a startup CEO is all about pitching, all the time. It never ends.

Don't expect this process to complete quickly. It can take many months.

Certainly don't be tempted to go with the first decent candidate. Being a co-founder is a very close relationship, and you have to get it right. Good luck.

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Richard Rodger is the founder of Voxgig. He is a former co-founder of Nearform, a technology consultancy firm based in Waterford

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