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How to Find a CTO for Your Startup? Guide for Beginners

Ready to ramp up your business? Then maybe it’s time for you to hire a CTO for your startup! Read our beginner-friendly guide on how to find a CTO.

Written by RamotionMar 19, 202413 min read

Last updated: Mar 19, 2024


As the market evolves, the need for businesses to be more resilient, efficient, and interconnected digitally has grown exponentially. With the COVID-19 pandemic changing the face of the world, organizations needed to adapt or perish.

And so they did through digital transformation, a process where companies leverage digital technologies to create, develop, and improve customer service, product development, brand culture, and operations. The process has become vital for businesses to drive changes and growth in the long run.

With such an expansive process, typical C-level managers—CEO, COO, CFO, among others — are not fit to plan, strategize, and implement technological advancements. Hence, the rise of in-house CTO or Chief Technology Officer.

On top of having a set of top-notch team management skills, they can make sound tech decisions. Someone that every company, most especially startups, needs to thrive in this age.

A Chief Technology Officer is responsible for balancing the technical and business sides of things. Image by Andreas Klassen via Unsplash

It’s not a new role. It has existed since the 1980s, often found in a tech startup and other major companies. But with digital transformation sweeping across industries, the role has found its way into non-tech organizations.

CTOs are known to perform multiple functions. They are tech wizards and skilled developers who are highly competent businessmen in overseeing the creation, development, and implementation of policies and technologies to increase business value.

But don’t confuse a CTO with a CIO or Chief Information Officer. While both are tech professionals, a CIO focuses on the overall tech strategies of a company, ensuring the team and other stakeholders work toward the same goal. That said, a CTO often reports to the CIO or the CEO.

With the continuous growth in demand for skilled CTOs in the US, job search platform Zippia shares that CTO candidates can expect over 180,000 jobs in the next ten years. CTOs earn an average of $172,989 annual salary.

It is projected that there will be more than 180,000 CTO jobs available in the next decade. Illustration via Zippia

Hiring the right person is a complex process, though. Before you post that job announcement, here’s everything you need to know about hiring a CTO for a startup.

What are the Responsibilities of a CTO?

Tech is essential to every organization, whether you’re an emerging business or an established company looking to improve further. It takes a dynamic and innovative CTO to make technical decisions and ensure quality and results from other tech-related efforts.

While a CTO’s responsibilities vary from business to business, below are some tasks they perform on the job.

  1. Formulate a technical plan.
  2. Maintain company data and network security.
  3. Plan and allocate budget for tech.
  4. Lead the in-house team and tech research and development.
  5. Liaise with customers, stakeholders, and other technical talent.
  6. Create and present reports to the CEO or the CIO on the company’s product development tech status.

Why Hire A CTO? Advantages of Having a Startup CTO

Managing the technical side of things can be overwhelming, especially for non-tech founders. Having a team of tech talent can lighten that load and more. Read on as we delve into what startups and small businesses can gain from hiring a CTO.

1. A CTO can manage and optimize resources.

Startups often have smaller budgets than big companies. Hence, managing your funds is important, especially as tech can be a lucrative investment.

That said, a CTO is someone with the technical expertise to identify the right tech stack for your company that delivers results and fits your budget. Plus, a resourceful CTO can provide innovative tech solutions out of existing assets instead of purchasing new technology.

2. A CTO eases the digitalization process.

The digitalization process can be long and complex to manage and implement. It needs all hands on deck, including your tech team and senior executives.

With a CTO on your side, you can rest easy knowing someone with the right skill set is at the helm, keeping an eye on the whole process. You also won’t miss out on emerging technologies and tech trends that can boost your business growth.

3. A CTO inspires and drives technological innovation.

Aside from being skilled developers and having other tech expertise, an ideal CTO can be the voice of inspiration within your team. They understand the value of creative boundaries and empowering their team to stay on top of their technical skills and soft skills.

Beyond being a tech-savvy person, a CTO’s ability to embrace a healthy process of innovation and collaboration can drive sustainable growth and success.

What Makes a Great CTO? Here Are the Qualities to Look For

A great Chief Technology Officer is a mix of everything, from having the technical expertise to grapple with real-world industry problems to having the ability to understand and connect with people. Read on as we highlight the primary skills and traits your future CTO should have to be effective.

High Technical Competency

An ideal CTO should have comprehensive technical capabilities in using programming languages and other tools. Illustration via Freepik

Because of the complex job, companies require CTOs to have skills and knowledge in tech and business. That said, an ideal candidate should have a degree in Computer Science or other tech-related courses to qualify for the role.

While not a strict requirement, those with a postgraduate degree in business or Computer Science are also more likely to get hired. CTOs are adept in web development, software engineering, project management, and DevOps. Their tech stack often includes several sophisticated programming languages like Python, JavaScript, C++, and Ruby on Rails.

Potential CTO candidates have solid experience, too. For many companies, that’s at least 15 years in tech plus leadership experience and certifications in adjacent fields like finance, quality assurance, and management.

Management Skills and Experience

CTOs set up the tech team of a company, which involves hiring, training, and performance management. That said, they should know how to work with various teams from different departments, understand and improve existing systems, and have leadership skills and management skills.

Your future CTO is competent in the business side of things, especially the different startup stages.

A Lifelong Learner with a Growth Mindset

Being a lifelong learner means putting in the effort to upskill and reskill. And this is highly desired from a CTO as tech is constantly changing.

The ideal CTO also possesses a growth mindset. They are someone who acknowledges their weaknesses and learns from peers and other industry leaders to improve. Consequently, such a CTO can be a good influence on the team in encouraging professional development.

Adaptive and Agile

With an expansive role often involving switching hats when needed, a CTO has to be adaptive and agile. These management skills help CTOs figure out how to lead their team through obstacles and pivot current strategies when objectives change.

These traits also aid in making critical business decisions while observing best practices to respond quickly to market demands. An adaptive and agile CTO allows the company to stay ahead of the competition.

A Strategic Thinker

A strategic CTO is someone willing to challenge the norms and go beyond their comfort zone using innovative solutions. With insightful advice, they can ensure the company invests wisely in cutting-edge technologies that support its business goals.

But beyond figures, a strategic thinker makes it easier for teams to collaborate, integrate technology into the operations of a startup, and foster efficiency. This results in creating more opportunities for a startup to grow.

Good Communication Skills

CTOs often handle varying problems with complex solutions, and clear communication can be instrumental in implementation. A CTO with good communication skills can translate complex solutions into simple terms that non-tech members and customers can understand.

Being a great listener is also essential in understanding and anticipating the demands of customers and the needs of the tech team. There’s higher productivity, credibility, and trust within the team, resulting in a memorable brand experience.

The Four Types of CTO Persona

The CTO you need varies depending on your organization’s work style and company goals. Business consultancy McKinsey has categorized the CTOs into four different profiles. Take a look and see which one is right for your startup!

The Owner, the Influencer, the Challenger, and the Enabler. What type of CTO do you need? Image via McKinsey

Type 1. The Owner

Probably the type that thrives when control is given, the Owner CTO is a technical leader who is decisive and keen on investing in emerging technologies, ensuring that the company remains agile. They have a strong influence over budgeting and research and development.

They focus their leadership skills and efforts on making a clear-cut tech strategy and streamlining workflows to increase efficiency. Hence, the Owner CTO also takes the helm in picking and refining its team.

Type 2. The Influencer

Known as the opposite of the owner, the Influencer CTO prefers to work in the background by giving instrumental advice to business leaders and other stakeholders.

Think of them as visionaries providing insights on how a business can optimize its strategies and power its research and design to achieve the technical vision the company has set.

The Influencer CTO is fit for tech startups and businesses where its products and services are built around different tech tools.

Type 3. The Challenger

If you’re looking for a startup CTO unafraid of pushing the envelope, then the Challenger may be the right persona for you.

A Challenger CTO shakes the boat by scrutinizing every decision in investments, strategies, and research and development to improve the company’s overall performance.

With such vigor in disrupting the market and challenging the norms, this type of CTO persona has an intimate knowledge of the competition and is always a step ahead.

Type 4. The Enabler

A supportive figure, the Enabler CTO ensures that every resource needed to push through with strategic plans and developments is provided. They work rigorously in fortifying the hard and soft skills of their tech team, processes, and the capacity of the company by increasing investments.

That said, the Enabler is committed to honing the internal interfaces of a company.

How to Hire a CTO for Your Startup?

Equip your startup with the right CTO to lead your tech team. Image by Annie Spratt via Unsplash

Many tech startups have co-founders who can rise to the CTO role with their educational background and experience in tech and management. But if you don’t have a tech co-founder to rely on, here’s how you can externally hire a CTO.

1. Know What Your Business Needs

Hiring a startup CTO can be hefty if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Maximize your investment by carefully considering what your business needs.

Talk to your product team and department managers to see the current tech health status of your business. Review your business plan and see if goals are met. And if you need expert help, try consulting with a technical advisor or technical specialists.

Aside from analyzing your business strategies and bringing other hard technical skills, a technical advisor can also equip you with a better understanding of a CTO’s role before hiring, especially if you are a non-tech person.

2. Define the Job Description of Your Ideal CTO

While you can probably copy and paste job requirements for CTOs online, it is best to tailor the role to your organization’s needs to get the results you want.

With the help of your tech consultant, HR team, and co-founders, map out your expectations from your CTO. What hard skills and experiences should they have to be able to accomplish the goals you set for them?

The job description should be specific in answering the hows, whys, where, and whos of the role. It also helps to set a realistic budget for the CTO role commensurate with the qualifications you are looking for.

Pro tip: Split the list of the CTO’s responsibilities into technical duties and supervisory duties. Doing so creates a clear outline of your expectations, increasing the likelihood of attracting the right candidate for the job.

3. Seek Applications and Recommendations from a Trusted Network

Now that you have defined the profile of your ideal CTO candidate, it’s time to cast your hiring net. Start by posting your job vacancy on professional online platforms like LinkedIn, ZipRecruiter, and Glassdoor.

If you’re looking for a CTO co-founder, meet angel investors by joining online platforms dedicated to hosting many tech meetups. Or freelance platforms like AngelList and CoFoundersLab.

An even better strategy is to tap into your network. Talk to many founders, business leaders, and peers within the industry about their experiences when hiring a CTO or working with a technical co-founder.

They can give you references to potential CTO candidates who fit the bill. You can even consider hiring freelancers before you commit to a full-time CTO.

4. Screen for Technical Skills and Work Compatibility

Considering the weight of the responsibilities of the CTO, the screening process should be rigorous. But while hard technical skills are vital, the work compatibility of your ideal candidate should not be ignored as it dictates how they'll relate with other team members and non-technical people. And let’s be honest, no one wants to work with a difficult person.

That said, evaluate if they have the necessary soft skills to thrive. Remember that you want an effective CTO who can drive results and also help your team grow professionally.

Do I Need a CTO for my Startup? 3 Alternative Roles to a CTO

It depends.

Hiring the right CTO can look different from one business to another. There are limitations to consider, especially for startups. And some goals may not necessarily call for a CTO. For example, if you have 10 or so people on your team, you can start small and hire a technical advisor instead.

Below are some alternative roles you may want to look into to lead your tech team.

Business Technology Strategist

Are you starting from scratch in your tech journey with no clear vision yet? Consulting with a business technology strategist would be a good alternative to a CTO.

An ideal business technology strategist or a technical advisor has strong technical skills with over 10 years of experience in the field, leading businesses in creating strategies and defining infrastructures and processes. They conduct risk assessments, program reviews, and manage tech activities. Hence, they are a better option for those in the initial startup stage.

Chief Information Officer

A CIO or Chief Information Officer ensures that the tech framework aligns with the overall business strategy. The role usually concentrates on managing existing technology to improve the overall efficiency of the business. On the other hand, a CTO only focuses on the development of products and services by working closely with the engineering team.

If you’re a company of more than 100 people, you may benefit better from hiring a CIO than a CTO.

Chief Digital Officer

A Chief Digital Officer (CDO) is adept at creating digital solutions that address the needs of consumers and improve their experience across all platforms. As a digital business leader, they leverage AI, machine learning, and blockchain to forecast, strategize, and implement digital transformation.

If you’re looking to improve your online presence, customer interactions, and the overall digital transformation of your company, then a CDO is a great option.

Find the Right CTO Now

Having a reliable Chief of Technology by your side is a big boost for startups. You can rest easy knowing you have a problem solver extraordinaire working magic to keep your business tech ecosystem in check. We hope this article helped you learn how to find CTO candidates and the importance of the role.

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