CTO School is an organization and a meetup I’ve been helped found and run over the last two years, which has been a very fun project for me. This post summarizes how it came about, and how it works.
Introduction – Challenges of a Startup CTO
The role of a technical leader is a fundamentally challenging one, but fundamentally, his or her primary job is to make sure the company’s technology strategy serves its business strategy. This involves a complex set of skills that span deep technology knowledge, process management skills, and managerial, leadership and executive skills.
For a technical leader at a startup, a key challenge is that in most cases they are unprepared for the role, since most of the time the CTO is somebody who only has some of the skills they need to excel at the role. When one finds him or herself in the role, it’s often difficult to recognize that there are whole areas of your job that are important, and you can find that out through making mistakes.
When somebody is promoted to technical lead position at a larger company he or she has other people around him, managers and mentors who have done this job before. They are typically still part of the technology hierarchy, which provides somewhat of a shielding from other aspects of the business. Startup CTO does not have this built-in support network. Additionally, the startup CTO role has more variety in it, since you are more likely to be involved in business strategy decisions, and are in many cases part of the executive team. On top of this, if the startup is having any success, both technology, team and process need to scale rapidly, so the role is constantly changing…
While technology is a strength CTOs typically start with, technology landscape is vast and is rapidly changing, so one must continuously keep up in their specific chosen platform, as well as round out their knowledge over time.
CTO School is a forum that aims to help startup CTOs and Technical Leaders become better in their complex roles. It aims to bring together to share ideas, mistakes, and best practices, and help them form that network of peers who they can learn from and share experience with.
A Brief History
CTO School started originally in the fall of 2010 as a series of seminars. The spark to start this endeavor was provided by an April 2010 blog post by Charlie O’Donnel, and we collaborated with him and NextNY group (http://www.nextny.org) to run a five-session series.
This five-session series turned out to be very popular and fun for all involved. AOL Ventures provided space at AOL headquarters, and we had over a hundred attendees for most sessions. It was clear that this type of group met a real need.
We had several types of talks, from one-person for the whole evening, to two unrelated topics, to panel discussions. After the talks, we also went out for a beer and some food. After the first session, another four-session series was run in 2010 in Skylabs downtown in the financial district, and this is when Peter Bell of PowWow, Kurt Schrader of Intent Media, Liz Crawford of BirchBox and me, Jean Barmash of EnergyScoreCards decided to keep this going as more of an ongoing meetup. The fifth session of the fall program was also our first meeting as a meetup was in December 2011, and we now have over 300 members in the meetup.
Goals for CTO School
CTO School is a meetup for CTOs, VP Eng, or Tech Leads that are interested in improving their skills and learning from each other. We are more focused on startups in terms of topic selection, but welcome all technologists. The goal is to have an ongoing forum for senior technical people (esp. in startups) to discuss their issues, meet each other, and share expertise. Secondary goals is to help grow the New York technology and startup ecosystem by building better technical leadership capacity.
The focus is both on people who are already in CTO / VP Eng roles AND people who are on their way there. One of the “use cases” is to have CTO school be an organization that a CTO encourages his lieutenants to join CTO school. If they attend meetings regularly, over time they will get exposed to the different areas of technical leadership, which will prepare them for more senior roles.
Who can join?
The ideal member is a CTO, VP. Eng, Architect, Technical Lead, or somebody with a few years of experience that’s on the cusp of becoming the technical lead. Membership is by approval; we do not let in non-technical people, and try to gently discourage people who are just starting out their careers (though we sill let them in if they feel strongly about joining). This is one of the ways we try to keep this group free of non-relevant content, including trying to keep recruiters and business people looking for technical co-founders away from this group. We want this to be a group of peers who can really relate to each other. Please join at http://www.ctoschool.org.
In New York, we meet on the second Monday of every month and have a speaker on relevant topics, from general topics, like how to create great engineering culture, to technology areas – e.g. comparison of cloud platforms.
Core Skill Areas for CTOs – Technology, Process and Management
We view CTO role as combining three broad skills areas:
- Technology Skills. This one is the easiest to define, they need to be a great technologist. This involves knowing one or more technology platforms, software libraries, components, and of course knowing how to program.
- Process Skills. Here we are talking about Software Development Life Cycle and all related processes such as Quality Assurance, requirements gathering, Product Management, User Experience and Design. etc. CTOs with some experience typically have been part of teams and have seen some of these processes at work, though it’s a much different task to participate in a part of the process vs understanding the different tradeoffs behind defining a process. Scrum / Agile comes under this area.
- Executive / Managerial Skills. These are more general skills. They relate to recruiting, motivating, and managing people, with interacting with business stakeholders. Skills like public speaking, evangelizing your product, helping out with sales, networking, etc. This is the area that most CTOs probably have the least experience with.
When thinking about the key skill sets that either a CTO, VP of Engineering, or Technical lead needs to have to manage a small to moderately sized team, there are three skills areas that seem to be the most important. This is complicated by the fact that the role’s requirements are very specific to a particular company and depends both on the purpose of the company and the products it sells. CTO School’s goal is to strike the right balance between the three core skill areas.
When at one of the meetings we asked for feedback on these three areas, we overall got positive feedback. One thing that people made clear is that what they found especially valuable is the real-life experience. There are books on technology management, books on specific technology areas, but having somebody who has worked on something or stuggled with something and overcame it is very valuable to see in-person.
Note: There is some great work done on the role of CTOs available on the Internet. One particularly interesting framework is Tom Berray’s, which talks about four quadrants of the CTO role, which is also a useful way to look at the role (summary by CTO of Amazon). They seem to focus to larger companies more than smaller teams, and many attributes can be mapped to our skill areas. It’s useful to study those frameworks to understand the role more fully.
This is the current vision and focus. We have many ideas for this to grow in the future, but the initial goal is to continue having great content and to have this become a very valuable resource to members and the community.
References & Resources:
- CTO School Meetup – http://www.ctoschool.org
- CTO School 2010 – Original Session Descriptions http://nextny.org/w/page/30051396/CTO-School-F2010
- CTO School 2010 – Video Recordings of some sessions http://www.ustream.tv/channel/cto-school-fall-2010
- CTO School 2011 – Session descriptions – http://nextny.org/w/page/26401962/CTOSchool
- CTO School 2011 – Some great notes from a few sessions by Cory Forsyth – http://coryforsyth.com/
More Great Articles on Role of CTO & Startup CTO
- What Does Startup CTO Actually Do – Eric Ries, founder of the Lean Startup Movement and former CTO
- Werner Vogels, CTO of Amazon, talks about one way to think about CTO roles.
- Tom Berray’s Quadrant on 4 Success Models of CTO
- Education of CTO Online Book – Dan Woods (esp. recommend chapter 3, Raw Technology Persona)
- Difference between CTO and VP Engineering by Mark Suster
- A good summary of several CTO articles
More interesting links: