Saturday, December 1, 2007

Acting CTO Role in a Start-up

I generally am working as an acting CTO for about 3-4 start-ups or other companies at any one time. I was just talking with someone who asked me to define how that could work and what they meant. Great question.

I also found this interesting graphic of the changing needs around the CTO role in different size/type companies that somewhat echoes my experience. (Roger Smith)

This helps explain where I normally play. Most often I'm being brought in the early stage, Start-up or Expansion (as the company looks at new product lines). During Stabilization, often the focus is transitioning to a full-time CTO. My focus in this post is on the Early and Start-up stages - expansion is more of a consulting, focused project role and it acts different.

So, what is my role as an acting CTO? My role is to work as part of the team to (1) understand related technologies and technical opportunities, (2) understand and help drive alignment around a vision of where the business should go, and (3) mesh those together to help make disciplined, proactive technical decisions.

Basically, the role is to support both the business strategy and technical strategy.

Technical Strategy

I support the technical team to:
  • review short and long-term technology strategies to help direct strategic technical decisions and help to ensure appropriate technology usage,
  • help define needed technical research activities,
  • assess new and emerging technologies to determine application to business needs,
  • help determine resource needs within business constraints,
  • review and influence business and technical processes to help balance competing needs and priorities.

Business Strategy

I support the leadership team to:
  • provide input on short and long-term business vision, strategies and plans to help define business priorities,
  • work closely with operational leadership to review and influence the product road map,
  • review and provide input on some investor presentation materials, business proposals,
  • participate in new business, partnership or investor meetings on a limited basis within time constraints,
  • advise the leadership team on business practices that will help to derive greatest short-term and long-term value from the technical team and other resources.
Most of the time, my engagements start with an introductory meeting where I meet the team, understand the issues, etc. Then, we come to an agreement on terms. Then, I
  • Review existing materials
    • Business Plan
    • Marketing Plan
    • Marketing Materials
    • Product Plan / Roadmap
    • Current and Projected Financials
    • Business Pipeline
    • Team Member Bios / Resumes
    • Current Metrics
    • Roadmap
Normally there are crude documents for each of these areas that can be quickly read / scanned. If there aren't existing documents, then it means more time to extract the information.
  • Conduct meetings to ensure understanding and alignment around market opportunities, business model, sources of revenue, immediate needs, growth, product opportunities, and ultimately to establish business and product priorities.
  • Support operational and technical team to revise product roadmap
  • Review and discuss short-term and longer-term technical strategy, define technical research needs
This gets me going. Normally, its a burst of activity at the start and then things settled down into a pattern with bursts of activity at particular times.

Many people ask how the acting-CTO gig can work out. I actually wonder the opposite. During the Early Stage or Start-up Stage, how can you have someone who can handle technical and business strategy AND have them hands-on? It's not a full-time CTO position, so they need to get work done. Instead, what you most often have is a person who is more hands-on who is doing their best at the strategy and there's a gap. You find that the non-technical CEO visionary has trouble directing the action. And the company is likely missing lots of opportunities and is a bit all over the map. To me, it makes a lot more sense to do part-time CTO (if you have some funding).