Previously published on Forbes on July 5, 2019
The relationship between CEO and CTO is pivotal to the success of technology-driven companies. Yet, the personalities and working styles of these driven individuals can be different, which sometimes leads to suboptimal results. I had the experience of joining a company with an established CEO and of greeting a new CEO to my company, so I decided to write two letters to help CEOs and CTOs get on the same page.
This is the counterpart to my last article, “How To Make The CEO-CTO Relationship Work“: It’s the letter that I wish I had received from my CEOs and gives CTOs tips on how to operate and communicate most effectively in service to the CEO and the executive team.
I know you have a brilliant and creative mind and an impressive mastery of technology, along with a solid track record of developing world-class products. As you may have guessed, your technical skills alone will not suffice for your success as an executive and as a productive working partner to me. To ensure our joint success, I want to share advice with you about how we can most profitably combine our efforts.
Let’s start with a pair of obvious observations. First, your colleagues on the executive team, myself included, do not have a technical background. Second, the purpose of the company is to grow as rapidly as possible by delivering products that users want and to generate income.
These two realities may clash with your natural tendencies as a gifted creator, particularly when it comes to the technical sophistication of products. Developing the coolest, fastest and slickest product is not always the best business strategy — particularly if it takes a long time. We will need to develop a partnership that allows us to make decisions that include both business needs and technical options. Not every release needs to be perfect in terms of scalability, usability, security, and every other technical consideration. Yet every release must meet the company’s business objectives of the moment. In order to achieve this, you can learn to never say “no,” but rather to present trade-offs, and explain them in terms of their business impact rather than their technical features (which we don’t understand). For example, if we need to deliver on an aggressive schedule, we need you to inform us of what is feasible within the desired time frame in order to achieve the desired business outcome. Do we need to license technology, take away specific features or limit some aspects of the product?
In a similar vein, the team as a whole will benefit enormously if you hone a new kind of creativity, or rather add a new dimension to your technical creativity. This new dimension is one that meets the needs of our customers in new ways, that identifies new markets that we can expand into easily, and that drives the growth of the company. This is a rare talent — one that combines creative understanding of the market with technical innovation.
Your (non-technical) peers on the executive team need you to use language that they understand; we know that you’ve mastered the technical ins and outs. Also, don’t mistake us for your sounding board — rather, you can go to members of your team for that. What is meaningful to us is the impact on the business. Often, it simply boils down to this binary outcome: whether or not we will meet our sales projections for the quarter. Meeting our quarterly objectives is paramount — it ensures we get to “fight another day” — and for that opportunity, we may occasionally ask you to temporarily compromise on technical purity or the efficiency of the engineering team.
We also ask you to be strong. At times, the executive team may “groupthink” into an idea that’s really bad from a technical perspective. Should we do so, we’ll need you to stand your ground and find a way to communicate to us — in terms that we understand — the errors of our ways. Use the technical facts as a foundation to illustrate the business outcomes. You are the only person in the company who knows what it will take to deliver a certain product, what technology, team, methodology, tools, and so on are best suited, and ultimately how long it will take to deliver the product to our customers.
I will do my best to listen when these situations arise. Even so, however, this process is not easy: You don’t want to give up simply because you are in the minority. Perhaps the hardest part is that, once you are confident that the executive team understands both engineering costs and the business consequences of their proposal, you’ll need to let the team make the decision. A typical scenario is when an important new feature is prioritized ahead of a major software re-architecture. Shipping the new feature on the old architecture will require rewriting it once the new architecture is complete. Yet, sometimes this inefficiency is the “right call”: for example, if it makes lighthouse customers happy and blocks out the competition.
Finally, understand that we welcome your input on all topics — not just technology and engineering. I’ve worked with remarkable CTOs who were brilliant business strategists, marketers, and even salespeople. While we seek your input, the final decision belongs to the designated executive team member.
These skills and contributions are all essential to the success of our shared enterprise, and you should develop them while retaining the qualities that inspired us to hire you in the first place. While I have emphasized communications and business acumen, your top priority remains to be a world-class innovator and technical leader. I will help you acquire these new skills over time so that your influence can reach its full potential within the executive team and as a partner to me, but you should continue (and I can’t help you here) to be a world-class technologist.
I hope you will find these tips useful, and I look forward to building a strong partnership together.