The three things I look for in a CTO

Commercial experience is vital.

by Carmen Carey
Last Updated: 08 Jun 2017

Nowadays, hiring a CTO means more than finding someone to sit in the back office dreaming up new tech. Senior management expects a CTO to drive profits and push technological boundaries. They need to be able to deal with everything from the Internet of Things to data security, while keeping up their key responsibilities.

For CEOs looking to make what will be a significant hire for the wider organization, only the best will do. You need to ask yourself: who seems capable of meeting the company’s technology goals? Can they monetise products with an inspiring technology vision?

I look for three key attributes above all others when hiring a CTO:

1. Experience of change

I want a CTO to have had some first-hand experience with change cycles – normally some sort of transformation - within a business. It’s especially useful if this experience fits with where you find your own business and how you want to evolve it.

A relevant example: if a company is hiring a head of sales to scale the business from 5 to 50 million dollars, they won’t select someone who scaled a previous business from 50 to 200 million – the right mix of skill and business infrastructure just isn’t there. So contextual experience is vital, not just with change per se, but the right level and moment of time of the change.

This experience often goes hand in hand with a broader understanding of enterprise architecture, business enablement and the full economics of your business. Whereas traditionally the CTO might have have been consumed by issues like technology and infrastructure scaling, this narrow view simply doesn’t work any longer.

Having a broader business understanding and first-hand experience with change management, coupled with core CTO foundations, is reflective of a candidate who knows the needs of the business, and can work well with the board.

2. Product responsibility

If I meet a prospective CTO who’s been accountable for a product, I’m immediately more confident in their ability to deal with the demands of customers, partners and the c-suite. Product experience gives insight into the commercial aspect of a business and also means that, as a CTO, he or she will be able to appreciate our customers’ needs.

CTOs need to be able to understand both the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of a product and how to add value for customers – this is something I feel they won’t get by carrying out their work with a hands-off approach. Companies need to have a detailed understanding of their products - this boost profits and make for happier customers to boot.

3. Commercial awareness

A broad technology background undoubtedly remains essential for any good CTO. He or she has to understand the basics and combine this knowledge with important technology and business trends. If they can translate know-how into action, your business will soon see the benefit.

That said, I’d expect more from my hire. As noted above, I look for the candidate to have a solid understanding of our wider business model. Being commercially astute is vital, as it allows us to deliver great products and services that are best for the customer and the business. A CTO who is capable of this means the tech department doesn’t lag behind the rest of your organization in terms of business analysis too.

There are also plenty of ways the CTO can and should step out of their comfort zone. I’d look to hire someone with a willingness to engage in customer quarterly business reviews with the sales team, attend a customer workshop or focus group, or give a keynote speech at an expo. The desire to engage and to be a thought leader is vital.

It can be tough for CEOs looking at making a CTO appointment to differentiate between highly-skilled candidates, but viewing potential hires through the lens of these three competencies will make your job a lot easier, and your business more robust and visionary.

Carmen Carey is the CEO of Apica

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