5 Things I’ve learned being a Startup CTO
As a technical founder of a tech startup, I often interact in sales conversations with other CTOs or tech leads. Don’t take the title literally — these tips may also be of interest to tech leads, VPE or other leadership roles at any tech startups.
This articles aims to simply share what I’ve personally learned. I’d like to start by pointing out that I’m touching 2.5 years into this role and still learning. I’m a first time CTO, and we’re a seed-stage startup with about 20 people.
Our aim at Aflorithmic is to:
“Create the authoritative infrastructure for the next generation of audio experiences.”
Our flagship product is www.api.audio — a developer-focused product that is beginning to branch out into much more.
- Fundamentally, the CTO role is about business impact
In my experience as a data scientist, my expertise (somewhat encouraged by the industry — in particular the emphasis on ‘new stuff’ or ‘public relations’) had very little linkages to business impact.
Firstly, it’s worth clarifying what business impact is. (This is adapted from — https://dropbox.github.io/dbx-career-framework/what_is_impact.html)
For us at Aflorithmic, we measure the success of our engineers largely on business impact. But what does impact mean? The definition is, by necessity, a bit vague. However, it can best be summed up by one of our core values — “we win when the customer wins”.
Impact starts and ends with better serving our customers, which, in turn, helps Aflorithmic succeed as a business.
- Adoption and consistent usage of new features
- keeping a demanding component of our infrastructure going,
- improving efficiency in our operations
- reducing operational or capital expenses
- improving the quality of our voices, and improving the user experience of our API through better error messaging
These are all examples that help both our customers and Aflorithmic win.
Fundamentally the CTO role enables business impact to prosper. That can consist of all sorts of factors — including but not exclusive to — technical delivery, writing code, managing, coaching, architecture, leading technical excellence, bringing in support functions such as dev ops, data scientists, etc. It’s also a role that involves closely working with product, marketing, HR, and many other functions.
If the market doesn’t care about what you are building or deliver things late, it is your responsibility to respond to consumers’ needs and find a solution.
- Culture matters, and you must take that seriously.
I’ve already written about culture before — https://www.aflorithmic.ai/post/friday-wins-celebrating-shipping-and-delivery. I think, as a developer, it’s easy to roll our eyes when we hear the word “culture”. A lot of what organisations say about culture is usually quite generic and fluffy.
However, let’s take a step back and think about what culture truly is.
Culture is what you celebrate. Rituals are the tools you use to shape culture.
Now let’s double click on that. If you celebrate ‘starting new projects’, you’ll end up with a culture that rewards that. If you celebrate ‘shipping digital products’ you’ll end up with a culture that rewards that.
So it is important to be mindful of this. What kind of people do you want in your team? What achievements do you want to reward? What practices do you want to retain?
- Your relationship with your peers across functions matters a lot
You need to partner very well with your peers across functions — your CEO, cofounder, as you grow, other senior leaders. Sometimes these relationships can be strained, and often it’s because writing complex software with many players is tricky.
In particular, you need to partner very well with whoever wears the ‘head of product’ hat. Often that’s the CEO, although sometimes it can be another product manager. I’m personally skeptical of a CTO also wearing the head of product hat — it means that one person is juggling a lot of responsibility simultaneously — although I most definitely can appreciate the grind. Startups can initially present a challenge in finding the time to hire all the roles needed, and often, early employees wear many hats until more resources get onboarded.
It’s very important that the relationship between you and your senior leaders, doesn’t get worn out — if it gets strained, generally, engineering ends up suffering more than product development. It took me many years to understand that, and I think the fundamental reason is — as Chad Dickerson ex-CEO of Etsy observed — it’s generally easier to specify high-level product goals and create high-level roadmaps than it is to write complex software. So it’s super important you have a shared roadmap and that you execute according to these timelines.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in business is that ‘relationships are the most important thing’. You have two jobs : be good at your job and be easy to work with. Some of that is appreciating your communication style, weaknesses, and humans don’t always make rational decisions. Politics; the art of getting the work done in a way that meets everyone’s needs.
- You probably suck as a manager, most first time managers suck.
It’s a truism: “Management isn’t a promotion. It’s learning a new set of skills”, and there are various things that matter as you manage humans. For example, exercising is a must. Your mood is a foundational quality in leadership that has a domino affects on those around you. Incorporate some exercise into your routine as a healthy stress reliever that increases endorphins, dopamine and adrenaline — brain chemicals associated with feeling happy, confident and capable.
- Always have a story
It took me a while to get this, but you should always have some sort of ‘story’. For us at Aflorithmic from a technology standpoint it is ‘aflorithmic is a serverless first company’ and that’s really affected how we speak about architecture internally, how we attract talent in the interview process (we’re privileged to have a world class engineering team). It’s natural in engineering jobs to get wrapped up concentrating on the daily work. Nonetheless, it is crucial to have a larger vision or goal to work towards and inspire a sense of purpose.
And for us as a company — we’re building the ‘simplest way to add audio experiences to your products’ and from that there’s a lot of other things that come out of that. We care about audio — a lot of our engineers have some sort of audio knowledge, or play music. We put creativity at the forefront of our values and we aim to upskill our developers to broaden their experiences (I myself was involved with open source for a number of years).
- You need to manage yourself — and your emotions
It’s a common management tip to do exercise. And it’s sound advice, management is a very psychological job and your mood/ demeanour has a huge effect on your team. So there’s a lot to learn about this, and this article isn’t about stress management. I’ve found personally that running works very well for me. However, you need to have something to help you manage the ups and downs of startups, people and your own mentality.
Also you’re doing a disservice to your team if you don’t do this. So take a walk, swim, run or whatever. Your team will thank you for it!
There’s many great management and technical management blogs and books out there. I hope this helps
Happy to chat audio or being a CTO!
If you have any questions about www.api.audio feel free to drop me a line at peadar[at]aflorithmic.ai I’m happy to chat about anything CTO related (although my time is limited I do try to respond or write blog articles related to these topics).