CTO SmackChat: So, what do you do?

[Loosely adapted from an actual conversation with an investor at a networking event]

“So, what do you do here?”
[standing large] “I’m the CTO for Mach37”
“No, I know your title, I want to know what you do”
[uh-oh, better obfuscate] “I’m the Chief Envisionator of Strategery for Cyber-Futures”.
“I don’t even know what that means. What I really want to know is what you do on a day to day basis to add value to this organization”
—–
Being the CTO or Technical Co-Founder of a startup company is a role that requires extraordinary flexibility and humility. Sure, the early days are obvious. You’re the developer of the first product, the first Product Manager, and critical for Marketing, Fund-raising, running the new business, and whatever else it takes to get that business going.

With a little success though, an early round of funding, and employees five, six and seven are a Product Manager and two developers…what now? Still not too hard to envision, your role is less hands-on with the Product and more involved with the roadmap and the intellectual property and mediating customer feedback from sales and marketing with your development team.

As success grows, and you add a VP of Technology to manage the technical team, your role continues to morph. Your CEO Co-founder has kept his roles and grown with them, while you have been busy giving your early roles away. So, what do you do? Is there still a place for you in the company you helped start?

The answer comes down to Leadership. You are a Co-founder because you helped create the vision of product and market and the problems you knew you could solve. The technical team looks to your leadership even though you are not so directly connected as you once were. You know the market and you know many of the key customers. You play a key role managing the business while the CEO is out raising money.

How that translates into day-to-day action varies with your personality, the company and the situation. I have found that letting other people take responsibility for the more detailed daily operations frees up time to build the longer term initiatives, those critical new areas for company growth that take time and patience to nurture. I enjoy being out in the community, a visible representative and spokesperson for the company. Thought leader in the market? Sure, that too.

So, what do you do? Lead. Figure out what that means, and earn your place every day as a leader in the company you worked so hard to start.

David Ihrie is CTO of MACH37 and has been the lead technical person for six startup companies. He has a BS in EE/CS and an MS in Management specializing in the Management of Technological Innovation, both from MIT.

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