How to become a CTO of a company - A career path

Roadmap for a career to a chief technology officer job

Do you want to become a CTO of a company? How to start? Why do you want to become a chief technology officer? Is there a roadmap to become CTO? Quite some questions to answer, let me tell you how I became CTO and why.

Let’s start with the why. After some time as developer and later manager, I wanted to change things. I wanted to make development better. I wanted to make it run smoother. I wanted everyone to be happier. So I figured out, that advancing the career ladder would give me more leverage. A team lead can change more things than a developer usually, a head of development more than a team lead. The ultimate tech position is that of the CTO and therefor has the biggest leverage, so I needed to become a CTO. Your goals and aspirations may be different, everyone has different motivations.

CTO Career Path

With the why out of the way, how to become a CTO then? At first I’ve joined a startup as a developer. Soon I had to hire other developers and manage them. This way I became a tech manager early in my career. Then I founded a VC backed startup with two friends and got my first CTO title. Later I joined a larger company as a team lead . Yes a team lead, but this time for a larger company to have a large famous company on my resume. Then I wanted to become a CTO in a larger company. I would not listen to any recruiters who would not give me a CTO position. I would tell every recruiter I wanted another CTO postion. So I became CTO in several other companies to now be a CTO coach.

Phase 0: Become a Developer

The first step on the career path to become CTO is to become a developer to start a tech career. This sounds obvious, but when looking at my CTO coachees and my career as a tech manager, most tech managers and especially chief technology officers come with a development background. Very, very view come from business, and only a few from QA or operations. If you’re in one of these two groups, it might be better to become a developer first.

Phase 0b: Product Manager to CTO

A second approach would be to make it through product management and become a CPO (Chief Product Officer) and then CPTO (Chief Product and Technology Officer). But then you might not be a techie in the first place and enjoy the CPO position more.

Phase 1: Focus on General Career for becoming a chief technology officer

There are two main phases to becoming a CTO: A general career phase and a CTO phase.

If you want to make a career, you need to focus on the career. It does happen by accident to a certain degree and depends on chance. But without some focus, it’s much harder to become chief technology officer. In the first phase look out to advance your career. Focus on promotions and some job hopping - but stay two years with a company, or it looks bad on your resume.

Some notes on being promoted in general. The first rule of good promotions is the boss of your boss needs to know you by name and what you are doing and that you are great. Your team lead can promote you to senior, but she can’t promote you to team lead, but her boss can. People will promote you if you are a problem solver. If you create a lot of fuzz, you might not get promoted, because your boss already as much more problems than you know about. She does not want more. But if you solve problems and reduce the number of problems on your own, you’re up for a promotion. Promotions are a risk to your boss (or bosses boss). It could be the wrong decision, so give your boss the impression and feeling that promoting you will be risk-less or even reduce the overall risk.

After some years up to the head of development position or to a VP of engineering postion, we enter the second phase.

Phase 2: Become a CTO - Focus, Focus, Focus!

It is easier to get a good title and to be promoted in a startup. It may be your first CTO title, startups are desperate for CTOs. So as I did, it’s a good idea to bounce between startups and larger companies. Advance your title and position with startups, then join a famous company for your resume. Iterate to get the position you want.

With being a tech manager on your resume, it’s easier to get other tech manager positions. I do think getting promoted inside a company to a higher position is easier than being hired to a higher position outside. So it is important that you get a promotion inside a company. Sometimes this is not possible because the company does not have the money. Then get the new title without a pay raise as a cheap way for the company. Remember you want to become CTO not get more money in every step, just over your whole career (when being interview, ALWAYS decline to mention your current/last salary. The only exception would be if it is >20% over the current market rate). If you are some years at a company, see that you get a change to your title. Sometimes people forget this, but it is important to get a better title everytime it’s possible.

Some general notes on being promoted to CTO. Up to a senior developer or a team lead who codes, your coding and negotiation skills are most important. As a team lead and up, you need to focus on your people skills. Up to the CTO position, it is important to be excellent in technology. Your boss will value to a certain degree your tech skills. In the CTO position you’re the bridge to the rest of the company. As an C-level executive you are supposed to act across the company as part of the management team. The CEO will value your business understanding and translating business strategy into technology advancement much more than your inner understanding of Elixir and the Erlang VM. No one will respect you for your tech skills, everyone assumes that you’re good at tech, otherwise why are you CTO? Other skills will make you successful in the CTO position, especially explaining technology to others and translating business decisions into tech solutions.

Where to go next? When I was CTO at an eBay Inc. company, my CEO asked me after two years where I want to go next. eBay is a company very focused on people development. So my next step would be COO and then CEO at an eBay Inc. company. After a year of high potential and future leadership trainings, mentoring and workshops, I decided I was a techie and wanted to stay CTO. So I left and joined the startup of my wife as CTO. Perhaps this is the right thing for you, or CEO is next. Or you’re loving to be a VP of Engineering. Find the place you enjoy most, up isn’t the only way.

About Stephan

As a CTO, Interim CTO, CTO Coach - and developer - Stephan has seen many technology departments in fast-growing startups. As a kid he taught himself coding in a department store around 1981 because he wanted to write video games. Stephan studied computer science with distributed systems and artificial intelligence at the University of Ulm. He also studied Philosophy. Stephan aced all Diploma exams with 1.0. When the internet came to Germany in the 90 he worked as the first coder in several startups. He has founded a VC funded startup, worked in VC funded, fast growing startups with architecture, processes and growth challenges, worked as a manager for ImmoScout and as a CTO of an eBay Inc. company. After his wife successfully sold her startup they moved to the sea and Stephan took up CTO coaching. You can find him on LinkedIn or on Twitter @KingOfCoders

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