Hiring a Chief Technology Officer

Defining the CTO's role and responsibilities

Most companies are now tech-driven. With new technologies emerging constantly, businesses need to adapt and adopt quickly to stay ahead.

Responsibility for this falls to the CTO (Chief Technology Officer). If you are looking for a CTO to manage the tech side of your business, you need to understand the role a CTO plays and what responsibilities they hold.

Below, we define the role a CTO plays within a tech company and share resources from leading figures in the tech sector.

What does a CTO do?

There is no set answer here. Responsibilities vary depending on the stage of the company and the sector they’re in, which we’ll break out. Larger businesses often split the responsibilities between the CTO and VP of Engineering.

Mark Suster, Managing Partner at Upfront Ventures, explains the differing roles of a CTO and VP of Engineering.

To demonstrate these points, here are the mission statements for the CTO roles at 5 prominent tech unicorns.

Company CTO's Mission
AirBnB Leading infrastructure, information security and IT, along with engineering for payments, trust, and community support as well as providing functional leadership for engineering and data science teams across the company.
Docker Leading technology strategy and helping to scale product development as well as driving continued innovation to both the company’s commercial and open source offerings.
Intercom Designing and running Intercom’s scalable architecture, capable of withstanding many millions of requests per month. Run the infrastructure side of the engineering organisation, which keeps Intercom available, secure, and performant.
InVision Moving from the legacy monolith to a Kubernetes-back continuous deployment services architecture with many-nines uptime, multiple customer product offerings, and high-velocity agile productivity.
Reddit Driving engineering vision and architecture. Focusing on security and site integrity, data compliance, core architecture, and testing.

As the above demonstrates, CTOs at some of the most successful tech companies have mostly management related responsibilities. However, this isn’t the case for early-stage startups where there may only be a few employees and the CTO is often one of the founders. This brings us onto the two main types of CTOs.

CTOs - the major types

The simplest way to classify CTOs is by their key focus within an organisation - is it technical leadership or operational management?

Technical Leadership

Typically found in early-stage startups, these CTOs are skilled and active engineers with expertise in coding, software architecture, cloud infrastructure configuration etc. They’ll do a lot of the programming themselves and review the code written by other engineers on the team.

Operational Management

At larger or later stage businesses, the CTO is primarily an operational manager who’s responsible for running the engineering team. They’ll still have a deep understanding of programming, but are unlikely to be coding day-to-day anymore. Instead, they’ll be shaping the company’s technology strategy while managing the engineering efforts.

As a tech startup grows, the focus of the CTO typically switches from technical leadership to operational management.

The CTO role’s evolution within tech startups

The key mission of a CTO is to ensure the company’s tech fully serves the business’ strategy. Let’s review the stages that a typical startup goes through to better understand how the role of CTO changes.

Edward Kim, CTO at Gusto, explains how his role changed as he went from being the sole engineer to managing a team of 100 developers.

Stage 1 - Business Idea

At this stage, the CTO validates that the idea is technically feasible and will suggest technical solutions to build the required software.

Michael Seibel, CEO of Y Combinator, discusses how to find a technical cofounder.

Stage 2 - Early stage

Having usually raised some investment, the startup team begins to build the product. It’s quite common for the CTO to be the only developer on the team at this point, so they’re responsible for building the MVP in the shortest possible time.

This will include choosing the tech stack, designing the architecture, setting up scalable infrastructure, and software testing. They’ll require excellent programming skills and preferably relevant experience as they’ll do a lot of coding in the early stages.

Stage 3 - Product-market fit

As the company starts to gain traction, its focus shifts to iterating on its product and improving functionality to make it easier to use for a growing customer base. To speed up this process, startups will typically hire more developers.

This alters the CTO’s responsibilities, as management comes to the fore. The CTO needs to manage the feature development pipeline so the engineers can work productively while ensuring the security and reliability of the product.

The CTO also needs to manage the growth of the development team, supervising hiring and setting the engineering culture within the company. They must ensure that engineers follow uniform standards to achieve a high level of productivity.

Stage 4 - Growth

At this point, the tech startup has achieved success and is growing into a large business with a sizeable engineering team. The CTO leads a large group of developers with an established programming culture and workflow. Their responsibility has now shifted to management, with new features likely requiring oversight of several engineering teams.

The CTO must also develop the software roadmap, keeping track of emerging technology trends and deciding which to implement to continue driving the company forwards. In order to maintain the startup’s competitive advantage, the CTO must have a strong understanding of business processes and competitors.

The skills a tech startup CTO needs

It’s clear that a CTO needs to have expertise in both software development and management. Let’s drill down into the skills a startup CTO needs. This is rather a long list, so we’ve broken it down by the roles a CTO plays.

Senior Executive

At large companies, CTOs are senior managers who don’t do any coding themselves and have predominantly management responsibilities. They should be able to:

  • Engage in company strategy planning
  • Participate in company management
  • Track and analyse competitors, particularly any new tech they might be using
  • Present ways in which tech can help the company move forward
  • Oversee external workforces (outsourced teams, contractors, remote workers)
  • Track emerging technology trends
  • Evaluate and monitor the company’s technical efficiency
  • Control engineering and IT budgets and optimise expenditure

At this level, the CTO can’t rely on technical knowledge/ability. They must have a strong knowledge of how the business works and its key drivers.


If the startup is early-stage, the CTO may need to be able to:

  • Build an MVP
  • Test the MVP
  • Develop APIs
  • Write documentation for the software and APIs
  • Manage and configure 3rd party services used in the product

Software architect

  • Design and implement a software architecture
  • Choose the tech stack
  • Design and configure the infrastructure
  • Choose the development toolkit
  • Database design and implementation
  • Optimise the application architecture
  • Make sure the application is scalable
  • Make sure the infrastructure is scalable
  • Research new technologies and determine whether to integrate them

The CTO does not have to perform each of these personally - that will depend on the size of the company the number of engineers on the team who these can be delegated to. However, software architecture skills are vital for a startup CTO.

Team Lead

As the size of the company grows, the CTO’s responsibilities shift to leading the engineering team, requiring them to:

  • Define and implement engineering standards backed by up-to-date coding methodologies and best practices
  • Establish an agile development culture
  • Set the development team workflow
  • Perform code and design reviews
  • Oversee the hiring of engineers
  • Mentor new engineers
  • Manage stakeholders (internal and external)
  • Set the KPIs for the engineering team
  • Keep tabs on the progress of engineers
  • Balance technical risk

DevOps Engineer

As well as being the development team lead, the CTO also needs to be a competent DevOps engineer. A successful tech startup needs an efficient deployment pipeline to ensure they can make updates safely and regularly.

The CTO has to set the DevOps culture within their business, so should be able to:

  • Establish a streamlined deployment pipeline
  • Schedule software releases
  • Manage releases, tags, and versions
  • Conduct safe software releases

System Admin

In the early stages of a startup’s life, the CTO may have to act as the System Admin and manage the company’s IT infrastructure. Therefore they should be able to:

  • Ensure the startup’s data is protected
  • Manage the company’s domains, SSL certificates etc.
  • Implement an internal comms system for the company
  • Monitor the performance of the IT infrastructure

Obviously as an organisation grows, these tasks will be handed over to IT staff.

Wrapping things up

The CTO is crucial to the success of a tech company. However, hiring a professional CTO can be difficult due to the range of the required skill set and their evolving responsibilities as a startup grows. If you'd like us to connect you with search firms who specialise in recruiting CTOs, please get in touch below.