Thursday, March 4, 2010

Technology Roles in Startups

I’ve worked with 30+ early-stage companies in all sorts of capacities (and spoken to many, many more), so I thought it might be worthwhile trying to classify the various ways that I’ve engaged in different technology roles in startups.


This post partly really came about as a result of a great conversation yesterday with David Croslin a former CTO at HP who recently conducted an interesting experiment.  He posted on several social networking sites the following message:

If you know of a startup company that could benefit from the knowledge, experience, professional network and reputation of a globally recognized technology and innovation leader.

I am looking for one or two startups that I can work with on their road to success as a virtual C-level officer, board member, advisor or other relationship.

Later he posted about his experience in Challenges of Startups.  The short story is that he received 400+ responses and goes through how he categorized/vetted the responses:

  • 300 Didn’t Fit – Outside expertise/interest, pushing for immediate funding assistance, too many ideas (not focused), looking for sales agents.
  • 20 Required NDA to continue – a nonstarter
  • 50 Couldn’t sell him
  • 15 Couldn’t explain why they wanted him involved

In our conversation together, David and I spent a fair bit of time discussing the fact that a lot of people really didn’t know what he could do for them.  This is actually fairly common and I think it’s a bit challenging in that the technology roles (from technology advisor to CTO) in a startup vary widely.  Actually, David’s taking even broader roles than I generally do as he’s CEO for at least one startup. 


As I went through my 30+ different startup experiences and tried to classify them a bit more, I realized this is very messy stuff.  Each situation is just a bit different.  It depends on the business, people, technologies, etc.  So while I’m trying to make sense of this, it’s somewhat hopeless.

That said, I think it starts with what a laundry list of different kinds of needed technology activities and what the current team can reasonably accomplish.  And a big factor is how big is the Founder Developer Gap.  Unfortunately for a lot of founders, it’s hard to know the gap.  There’s a funny phenomenon where often the best sounding technical people are often the worst developers.  So, you can easily get sold that there’s little to no Gap.

Some of the activities that are likely part of the mix where there might be need:

  • Review and provide input on business plans
  • Costs and time estimation
  • Product prioritization
  • Options analysis
  • Systems analysis and design
  • Technical risk analysis
  • Technical research and evaluation
  • Systems for accounting and reporting
  • Metrics (see startup metrics)
  • Security
  • Integration
  • Scalability
  • Social media integration plans (ex. see When to Use Facebook Connect – Twitter Oauth – Google Friend Connect for Authentication?)
  • Development plans and resourcing, in-house, outsource, off-shore
  • Other development and operational plans and resourcing
  • Interviewing resources
  • Coaching or managing developers or others
  • Discussions with key partners or customers
  • Technical innovations, protection, patents
  • Networking and Introductions

It’s worthwhile to think through some of the specifics of what gaps exist among the current team and hence where you might want to augment the team.


Augmenting the team can take various forms:

  • Consulting – defining how to attack particular issues, possibly directly planning
  • Coaching – advising on how to approach particular issues
  • Manage – lead members
  • Execute – take on specific activities

Again, this is fairly fuzzy, but it comes down to having mutual expectations.

Labels and Structure

One of the more interesting questions is what this ends up being called and how it gets structured.

  • CTO Founder – Direct responsibility for technical direction and development, sometimes operations, implies greater authority on product and company direction and higher equity position.
  • CTO or Part-Time CTO – Direct responsibility for technical direction and bridging the gap to development
  • Acting CTO – Direct responsibility but expected limited duration, often bridging to a full-time CTO

All of the above CTO titled roles imply direct responsibility to execute and manage aspects of the startup.  However, I’m always doing this part-time.  That means that it will be structured as some number of hours per week, month, etc.   It’s up to collective team to manage how this gets allocated.  That’s the same thing that everyone does, but they are playing with a larger bucket of hours.  Some weeks might end up being pretty much full-time on a single startup (e.g., important planning meetings or partner meetings).  But it generally works out well in the end.

Other labels:

  • Consultant – Take bits and pieces, possibly coach
  • Advisor / Advisory Board Member – Often a periodic responsibility and some ad hoc activities.  I’m going to talk to this in a future post in more detail.

The consultant role can either be a specific set of tasks for a limited duration or a set of hours over a given timeframe.  It generally is done to pick off specific needed activities.

I would suggest if you are thinking about what you really need for your startup in terms of technology, you also take a look at: Startup CTO or Lead Developer.

I would love to hear questions on this – and I’m expecting to come back and modify this as I have experiences that fit outside of this or as I figure out better ways to classify / clarify technology roles.

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