Are all CTOs the same?

Is the CTO role defined similarly everywhere?


Created on 27 October 2023.

Short answer: hell no.

I'm confident that the image you have in your head when hearing "CTO" is quite different from mine. Or anybody else for that matter.

From my experience, so far, I have identified 3 major roles:

  1. The sole technical person in a brand-new company. The technical cofounder.
  2. The startup CTO.
  3. The classical CTO.

If you look closely, you might think that, in fact, I am talking about the size of the company, right? It might be the case with #1, but not so much with the next ones.

The best way I see fit to differentiate them is through the lens of "operational involvement". This refers to how much time and energy does this person invest in day-to-day activities - the operational side of a business.

The classical CTO has 0%. None. He doesn't code. He doesn't push to production etc. Yes he could create a proof of concept to showcase or explain something. And he could code it. But it's not production code. It's for teaching, demonstration and other various purposes.

The startup CTO has anywhere between 50-80%. He makes the occasional commit. He does code reviews from time to time. There might be days when he sits in the same (virtual) room with the team and figures out a way to move forward together. But he also needs to step back and look at things from different perspectives.

The technical cofounder has > 85% operational involvement. He knows the product inside-out. He created it from scratch. Furthermore, he knows where the skeletons are hidden.

There is something I would like to add though: I don't think that the person from #1 is actually a CTO. In that particular case it is just a nice, self-proclaimed title.

I am fairly confident that a person can transition from one to another. But it's quite a journey that many can't handle.

Why? Simply because the skill set is very different. How much business acumen does #1 need? Close to 0. That's why he has a business-like cofounder. What about #3? A ton.

And yet, all 3 of them do share something strongly: a bad decision with devastating consequence -- could make or break the fresh company or could push the breaks really hard on the growth of a startup or become very liable for a larger company.

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