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CTO, lead developer, or hybrid? How to hire a tech leader

Ashley Streb
Ashley Streb
Chief Client Officer, DEPT® Americas
6 min read
14 August 2020

It’s not hard to imagine a story like this…

You have an incredible idea for a product that will disrupt the entire _______ industry. As you research the market, your competition, and the feasibility of your product, you get closer to arriving at a substantial action plan. With inevitable success on the horizon, you start to look for an experienced software engineer and business leader.

You think, “I need a chief technology officer (CTO).”

As you start your search, there are a lot of things to consider. You need someone with technical skills who can also lead a team and envision the future. Someone who can contribute to business goals but also maintain your codebase.

So what should your job posting look like? And what should you call this person?

I’m bringing this up because I’ve often seen startups get this position wrong. They hire a chief technology officer, but they don’t know what they actually need, and everyone ends up in a bad spot.

Before I lend my advice on building a startup team, let’s break down what “traditional” CTOs and developers do. I say this knowing that there are few traditional aspects of either, but for the sake of this argument, let’s pretend.

What Does a CTO Do?

Just about every CTO I know has a slightly different job description. But generally, a “traditional” CTO will be in charge of executive-level decisions about technology. This might include future technology requirements, strategy implementation, and resourcing, to name a few.

What Does a Lead Developer Do?

Whether they’re a senior, junior, or lead, a developer at his/her core is an individual contributor that writes code. They work with designers and product managers to create interfaces, manipulate data, and maintain software ecosystems.

The In-Betweens

Between developers and CTOs live a few senior/managerial positions. Positions like:

– Team Lead: A team lead will still write some code, but they will also manage a team of junior developers and help them with their code and careers.

– VP of Engineering/Engineering Manager: An engineering manager might write a small amount of code sometimes, but generally they are strategizing solutions, working across departments, and leading large teams of developers.

Generally speaking, startups all call their tech leader a CTO, but their job roles will be different in almost every size of an organization.

The Problem with Hiring The Wrong Technical Lead

While CTOs and developers (and engineering managers and team leads) will overlap in their skillset, some unfortunate things may happen if you hire the wrong skill level or assign a misaligned title.

I’ve seen this happen a few times:

A startup hires a traditional CTO, someone with excellent management skills. However, the startup needs someone who can write code for their product. The CTO doesn’t want to contribute to the day-to-day code writing process. Both the startup and the CTO are unhappy.


A startup hires a traditional developer, someone with excellent code-writing skills. But the startup quickly grows and within a year, they have an entire team of developers that need to be managed. The developer can’t (or doesn’t want to) switch to management so quickly. Both the startup and the CTO are unhappy.

So what does a startup do when they need this hybrid role?

What You Probably Need

When you search for a startup CTO, you need to find someone who can take on two main things.

These two abilities are on the ends of a sliding scale. Depending on where your startup is, you may gravitate towards one end of the spectrum.

If you’re not sure exactly what you need, consider the size and stage of your startup. Here are some theoretical examples.

The Early Stage Startup

I’m considering an early-stage startup to be under five people. For these teams, you likely need someone who can contribute a lot of code, because in a startup this small, everyone is an individual contributor.

So as you start your search, look for an excellent developer. Hire a developer that also has a knack for management.

Traditional Startup

A traditional startup might have 25 people. For startups this size, you will want someone who can lead a technical team but understand the day-to-day and technical requirements. They probably won’t be writing code. They will manage teams and processes.

So as you start your search, look for an engineering manager. Hire an engineering manager who can both write some code and envision the future of your organization.

50+ People (Even Up to 1,000)

At this size, you will likely have a “traditional” CTO. These large businesses will have executive-style CTOs, someone that knows technology, but through a business lens.

Now, for all of these situations and sizes, you will likely call this person a CTO no matter what their day-to-day looks like. That’s alright. What’s most important is that everyone is on the same page when it comes to responsibilities and future responsibilities.

Final Thoughts

Again, getting this particular hire right can set you up for success now and in the future. If you hire someone with prized development skills, you may prosper now but struggle in a year. If you hire someone with great management skills, you might not get enough upfront work completed to reach a year.

This doesn’t even consider that your CTO might be unhappy in their role.

If I have any advice for a startup looking for a well-rounded CTO, it’s this: Find someone who understands the need for individual contribution now but is excited about and capable of leading a team too.

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Chief Client Officer, DEPT® Americas

Ashley Streb