I’ve considered myself a hands-on CTO years before achieving the three letters, and I believe that mentality played a critical role in realizing the inevitable outcome. I graduated college with a degree in computer science, which I sought simply because I liked to play with computers (still do). This was way before the age of coding rockstars. For my first coding job, I was hired to build websites, so naturally on my first day on the job I sat down and googled how to build a website. I was unaware of back vs front end, graphic design, database admin, and sysops (now devops), so I just learned it all, and wow am I fortunate for that ignorance! (I still remember attending an in-person Photoshop class.)
Fast-forward several decades, I’ve worked for countless engineering leaders who couldn’t code a “hello world,” couldn’t lead a team of ants, and the biggest A-holes on the planet. On the other hand, I’ve worked for amazing leaders who pushed me to grow, encouraged me to be a leader, and taught me how to write my way through award-winning proposals.
The CTO Skill
How does one become a hands-on CTO? The answer is pretty simple, actually. But the journey shouldn’t be. So what’s the answer? The answer is “research.” Research everything. Be curious. Always be learning. You know who doesn’t read everything? Most people!
Sure, software engineers will build great software. But it’s the CTO’s responsibility to support them as needed, oftentimes simply because they just didn’t read the documentation.
The CTO will make their prospective (and ongoing) clients feel comfortable that their business objectives are understood, and the CTO will go beyond ordinary excellence for everyone (ok maybe not for that client who never pays).
And depending on the size of the company, the CTO may be the one troubleshooting when a device doesn’t work, only to discover it just needs to be charged (or new batteries).
The CTO cannot get frustrated by any of this as it’s their responsibility to support the entire organization in any way they can. Do not underestimate the critical problem solving competency of the CTO, it’s the most valuable skill.
Should the CTO code?
The age-old question, should the CTO be coding? Or better phrased, should the CTO be able to code when needed. And then you may say “the CTO must be a Java expert.” Which again, is the wrong way of thinking. The thought should be “the CTO must be able to quickly learn [insert topical programming language, framework, framework, protocol, trending topic].” You never know when you’ll be called into duty at the 11th hour to ensure a deliverable is met, and it will happen. At this point, the CTO should be equipped to handle anything.
Here’s where I can see differing opinions, but after spending several decades in this space, I am of the opinion that a CTO must be able to quickly learn any skill. And that includes coding skills as well as playing piano, speaking German, or building furniture. That’s our superpower, the quest for knowledge, the thirst for learnings, the opportunity to solve a challenge.