Tuesday, February 28, 2017

How (not) to impress a potential CTO

The other day I was at an event for start-ups and entrepreneurs - no, not the “Agile for Startups” event I’m speaking at in a couple of weeks, for once I was in the audience. Half way through the organisers decided to do a type of speed networking - so we could get to know each other, find employees, find clients, find investors, whatever.

One of the people I got to spend a few minutes with was an entrepreneur on the hunt for a CTO. As I often, usually (always!) find at these sort of events, there are far more potential non-coding entrepreneurs than there are “techies” to go around. Such events seem to be populated by non-techies hunting techies.

As soon as she heard I code she saw an opportunity… and she blew it. So for the benefit of other entrepreneurs hunting techies…

What she said was:

“Our product is 80% built, we had an intern last year and now we need someone to finish it.”

I also ascertained that: the start up was her and her business partner and as yet they had no customers. So I could also deduce that they had not validated the product Lean-Startup style, they had built and now were looking to “finish” it and find customers. So their start-up strategy already posed question.

When I asked “what is the technology stack?” she didn’t get the question at first asking and then said “I don’t know, its not my area.”

So whats’s wrong here?

“80% built”

That shows how little they understand about IT products, it ain’t never finished. Once you start using it people want changes, people see opportunities, digital business models depend finding new ways of using technology to create value.

If it was “finished” then… where is your business? - in a digital business the product is never finished.

Any CTO they hire is going to spend most of their time educating the founders - probably why they need a CTO in the first place!

But think for a moment, what if she is right? What if it is 80% done? Then the remaining 20% does not represent a lot of work for the new techie/CTO to do.

“an intern”

OK, there are some students who are awesome coders. Some of them are wasting their time at University, they should just go and earn big money. I was probably one of these people, I went to University and my degree has helped me later in life but…

The chances are this intern is better than average 20-something coder who has left behind a big mess - without unit tests. The CTO they hire is going to spend the next few years cleaning up that mess.

Lets put this together:

  • This is has not been validated in the market so it is a technology play
  • The founders not only lack technology skills but lack an understanding of technology business
  • A technology play by non-technical entrepreneurs just sounds like trouble

What lessons can we draw form this?

1. Firstly don’t confuse wanting a CTO with wanting a programmer. I think this lady and her partner do need a CTO and they do need a programmer, they may even be the same person - and I certainly hope any CTO remembers how to code. But… in trying to sell the role to me she was very confused.

2. They do need a CTO because this is a technology play. But I don’t think they see that, they see the need for a coder. They need to think more clearly.

3. She needs to recognise that “80% completed by an intern” is not a good sales pitch to any programmer (let alone CTO) worth their salt. It plays down both the amount of work to do, the challenge and promises a big mess to clean up.

4. Not knowing the technology stack is criminal: it is the most basic question any techie is going to want to know - a PHP Lamp stack is completely different to a Java AWS stack - and it is the most basic filter when recruiting technical staff. True it is not so important if you are hiring a CTO for a company with 50 developers but in a small startup the technology and business strategy are intimately connected.

Finally, yes, I could be tempted by the right opportunity to be a CTO - even a coding CTO - maybe one day…

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