It’s a simple enough question, and anyone envisioning oneself in that prized, pressure-cooker-of-a-position has probably thought about the education, skill set, experience and determination necessary to bring to the job. But that doesn’t answer the question. What, exactly, does the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at a start-up do?
As a seasoned serial entrepreneur, I’ll tell you it’s not a foolish question. The role of the CTO has evolved steadily over the years from one of supporting a company’s business to one of driving the business – through better (and more automated) processes, better analytics, better hiring, better execution, and by a relentless commitment to continual improvement. Nowhere is this truer than at a fintech start-up.
How does that translate into describing a CTO’s day-to-day routine? I can’t speak for every start-up CTO out there, but I can try to demystify the role for those considering it as the next step in their career.
For occasional readers of my blog, this is my moment to apologize for the long lapse since my last post. I’ve been wholly preoccupied (professionally, at least) in my recent venture as co-founder and CTO of MPOWER Financing, which provides education loans to high potential students attending top-tier universities. I believe that nothing I’ve done up till now has as much potential to improve people’s lives and society at large. Educational opportunity is truly the ticket to a better quality of life and a better standard of living.
Back to the subject at hand. At MPOWER, I try to spend my days doing three things. In reality, I do more, but as the company has grown I steadily do less and enable more, so I can spend more time on what I consider my most important three “tasks.” These are:
- Furthering the mission and vision of MPOWER through the appropriate use of technology
- Evangelizing “EaaS” (Engineering as a Service)
- Identifying, fostering and nurturing talent at MPOWER
Furthering the mission and vision of MPOWER through the appropriate use of technology
Furthering the mission and vision blah blah blah…yeah, it sounds lofty, but it goes back to what I said earlier about the CTO’s evolving role. The CTO isn’t just a company’s “top techie.” The responsibility, the need, is bigger than that. The CTO needs to understand the business and contribute meaningfully to business strategy. The CTO also needs to be able to simplify technical concepts and explain their importance to less tech savvy colleagues or investors.
Much of my time is spent talking with MPOWER engineers. My time is also spent meeting with investors and fundraising. Working well with both means 1) figuring out how to use technology in the most capital efficient manner to further the goal and KPIs of the business, and 2) being able to communicate our progress clearly and persuasively to our board, investors, analysts, and other stakeholders.
Pardon me if I get on my soapbox here, but…For too long engineering has been vilified as a recalcitrant gatekeeper whose “blessing” of objectives must be obtained before business units could put ideas into development and, with proper alignment of the stars, reach deployment.
Nonsense. In truth, the incentives of business units and engineering teams, and their leaders, are very much aligned. Engineering is a service to the business in achieving its goals, and well-conceived, well-architected and well-developed technology is an enabler of those achievements from which we all benefit. Much can be accomplished as long as everyone understands the practical limit to engineering resources.
How does this impact how I’m spending my time? Every week, and I mean every week, I spend half an hour with each business unit owner discussing goals for the current and future sprints, and soliciting their feedback on the process. It’s a very structured conversation.
What I’m looking for, listening for, in addition to goals, are their suggestions about how technology might, could, or should be employed to enable their unit’s goal achievement. In my effort to grow the company, I need their ideas without concern about how to create the technology or what form it takes as long as it is helping get where they want to go faster, more reliably, more efficiently, etc.
By evangelizing EaaS across my organization, I’m helping all my teams pull harder, or I should say, smarter, and faster toward our goals.
Identifying and Fostering Talent
If you skipped down to this section first, just promise you’ll go back and read the rest. I wasn’t intentionally saving the best for last…
As much as I believe in individual ingenuity and the power of a great idea, achieving success in today’s world requires having many people working together with the same vision, shared values, and common goal.
Engineering and technology are no different. For all my own talent, ability, and drive I know my company won’t go anywhere without a great team of engineers and technologists to take us there.
At MPOWER, we have a veritable army devoted to identifying technical talent. Their marching orders are to find and hire people smarter than ourselves, people who we hope will be even better than we are (or could have been) for the roles we need filled.
That’s a tall order, especially in our hyper-competitive labor environment. And, assuming we’re successful in that effort, we have the added challenge of providing the right environment for these recruits, positions where they can contribute, learn, take on responsibility, enjoy success, recover from a failure, and believe, rightfully, that whatever they’re doing is contributing to their career and long-term success – without preventing them from satisfying important personal needs (companionship, family, etc.).
Let me quantify that for you: we hire about one person for every 100 who reach the interview process. And for all the effort put into hiring, retaining great people requires every bit as much attention. Ensuring we meet employees’ expectations – with opportunity, training, education, community, not to mention compensation – means I spend a lot of time talking to employees to make sure we measure up, just as we expect them to.
I could go on, but let’s stop here for now on this topic; I welcome any feedback or inquiries. In my next installment, I’ll talk about why working at a start-up, whether you’re fresh out of school or well into a career, could be an opportunity you can’t afford to pass up.