Does a CTO need to be the person with the best technical skills at a company? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
The job of CTO is often deeply misunderstood. People see the chief technical officer as the top-dog techie, the one who helps the programming or development team navigate technical intricacies.
That is not the role of the CTO; his key duty is to help the company's businesspeople, customers, and prospective customers navigate the complexities of technology. It is a business position -- not a technical position -- and it is a position that exists due to the gap in tech knowledge.
The technical team itself does not need this type of guidance; they are experts at designing programs and ironing bugs out of programs. The CTO does make sure they are experts in the technologies that your company deploys to make its product, because the CTO uses his long-time industry experience to hire the right people to get that particular job done for your company.
But the CTO does not micromanage these programmers once they are in place, lest s/he annoy them and undermine their concentrated work.
Instead, the CTO serves as a seasoned gatekeeper, fighting off the constant bombardment of tech hype-masters who divert the company's focus with inflated claims about the latest miracle-tech.
An experienced CTO -- including a rented CTO who leaves after getting your company on the right footing -- won't fall for promises that defy tech gravity. He won't abandon time-honored and, sometimes, thriftier solutions for the promise of instant riches, knowing that technological get-rich-quick schemes often hurt the bottom line of cash-strapped startups without good results.
If a CTO does not know his stuff, not just from studying CS in school but from seeing which methods succeed or fail to solve real-world business problems, then everyone and everything will lead your company astray in an industry that overflows with buzz and hype.
The current fad for machine learning, for example, could easily lead someone who is not very technical to make very dumb, very costly mistakes regarding how ML can and can't be used. But the current fad for machine learning might be irresistible to an infatuated, inexperienced CTO ... it might sound good as gold.
And it is good for a fad's hypesters; they make money by feeding this stuff to your inexperienced CTO. It is not good for your startup's future, your investors' bank accounts, your personal bank account, your employees' bank accounts, and your creditors.
On the practical side, unless you really know what you're doing, every vendor is going to persuade you that their silver bullet is the perfect solution for whatever technical "problems" your company faces.
Unless you really know what is technically possible and what isn't, you'll fall into the common trap where many CTOs get stuck: tool-happy programming. Inexperienced CTOs drive their programming teams insane with the tool of the week, but worse, they drive your company's expenses through the roof.
Remember: needless expenses can drive your company out of business faster than anything. Assuming you actually have a marketable and vetted idea, invest in high-quality, carefully selected programmers. But, do not fall for every tech trick that knocks on your door; all solutions are not time-tested and equal.
To get you to that point -- the point where your well-staffed company is focused on things that have the potential to lead to an actual profit -- you need a CTO who has been around the tech world, seeing which tools produced the best end results in different types of companies.
You can't gain that kind of experience in school, nor from absorbing industry hype like a sponge. The CTO doesn't need to be an expert at any of the technologies except for the key tech the company uses, but s/he does need to have better than average ground-level knowledge of most solutions, including the business ones.
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