Learn about the role of a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to better understand if that's what your business needs. If it isn’t, you'll discover a variety of software development options and tips on how to evaluate them to make the right choice for your company.
I work in the technology sector alongside a large number of startup founders and small business owners. One topic that often comes up is how to hire a Chief Technology Officer (CTO).
Most often, people are seeking direction on what qualities and characteristics to look for when hiring a CTO and how to ensure they hire the best person for the job.
Many of these companies, however, don’t actually need a CTO.
Instead of asking how to hire a CTO, a better question might be: “Do I need a CTO?”
Depending on his or her stage, budget, complexity of his or her product requirements, and desired time to market, a CTO may or may not be the right answer.
A CTO isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to technical challenges, and it’s important to evaluate the variety of options out there, such as hiring a developer, finding an agency partner, or building your own solution using a no-code tool, to make the right choice for your business.
What Is a CTO?
A CTO is a C-suite executive who will lead the vision and strategy for your company’s technology needs.
According to Indeed’s description of the role, a CTO is often considered a thought leader, overseeing technology platforms and architecture, making plans, and representing the product or technical agenda in C-suite meetings.
As an executive at the company, you’re looking at a significant salary for an experienced CTO. According to Salary.com, the average salary for a CTO ranges from $195,137 to $272,224.
As of March 1, 2018, the median expected annual pay for a typical chief technology officer in the United States is $232,714.
When considering your technology budget, it’s important to remember that a CTO’s salary is likely just the beginning. This won’t include the technical tools and additional talent or external resources needed when bringing in a CTO.
The average CTO (68%) has 15+ years of experience, and 87% have 10+ years of experience.
A CTO will likely come into the role with management experience and will expect to have a team in place or will hire one pretty quickly.
As a member of the executive team, your CTO may expect to be a “manager,” not necessarily a “maker.”
Does Your Business Need a CTO?
One of the most important things for you to consider is if you are looking for “a maker,” someone to do the work and build your app or product as an individual contributor.
Alternatively, you might be looking for “a manager,” someone who will oversee that process and manage a team without writing the code.
If you’re looking for a technical manager of a complex product or system, someone who can help grow your technical team and direct the technical vision for the product, then you’re likely on the right track looking for a CTO.
If you’re looking for someone to develop your app or product (a role the startup founders we speak with are looking for most frequently), then you should be looking for an in-house developer or a development agency.
Hiring an In-House Developer
Let’s say you’re looking for the “maker” instead of the “manager.” You might want to consider in-house technical talent.
One of the most challenging aspects of being a non-technical business owner can be hiring your first technical employee.
What questions should you ask? How can you evaluate their code if you don’t know how to code yourself? What support will they need in terms of resources, advisors, or code reviews, and how will you supply that?
A good place to start is by outlining (in detail) what you need your developer to build.
Start by writing a general scope of work – a project brief – to help you clarify what you’re looking for. Will the developer be starting from scratch? If you’re creating an app, would he or she be expected to develop for iOS, Android, or both?
Here’s an interesting tool for developing mobile app briefs that could help you answer some important questions about your project, called My Visual Brief:
- Define your mobile app’s purpose: Explain the business purpose of your app and what it will offer.
- Define your app users: Focus on your end users, who they are, and how they will use the app.
- Define your app’s content: Will your app have audio, video, image, or documents?
- Define the user experience: Explain if you want your app to be fun, efficient, explorative, etc.
- Define your app’s look and feel: Explain the vision for your mobile app and what it will look like.
- Define the app’s design specifications: Decide on the number of pages, icons, buttons, menus, etc.
- Figure out the budget and timing of development: When do you want the app to be finished, and how much are you willing to spend?
What Type of Developer Do You Need?
Once you have your brief, you’ll be better equipped to figure out what kind of developer you are looking for.
There are many different types of developers (Coderhood can count at least 19!) so if you are looking to hire in-house, you’ll need to determine what you’re looking for: frontend, backend, full stack, web, mobile?
The list goes on:
There’s a wide variety of specializations and skill sets, and not all developers are created equal.
If you’re looking for mobile developers, keep in mind that you might not be able to find a one-size-fits-all mobile developer, either.
If you want to create an app for your business and you’d like people to be able to access it on iPhones (iOS) and Google phones (Android), then you’ll likely need two developers to build and maintain those apps, one for each platform.
Mobile developers specialize in a platform-specific coding language (for example, Swift or Objective-C for iOS and Java for Android), so in order to get the highest quality result, you’ll likely need to recruit based on these specializations.
When hiring developers, or any technical talent for that matter, one of the best pieces of advice that we can give is to tap your network to find a few technical people to discuss your needs.
Ask for some advice, and show them your project brief and job description. A trusted opinion can go a long way.
Consider an Agency or No-Code Platform
If hiring someone in-house seems like too much of a commitment or simply not the right fit, hiring an agency or using a no-code development platform could be the right choice for your business.
Hiring an agency for development needs is a popular choice for startups and small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs): Nearly half of SMBs hired a freelancer (41%) or an agency (39%) to help develop their mobile app.
If you’re interested in hiring an agency, think through the whole process, including how to evaluate a development agency, key questions to ask when hiring an agency, and how to compare on more than just price.
Is a CTO the Right Choice?
A CTO is a big commitment. Not only will this person require a large salary, but he or she will also expect a significant equity stake in your business, especially if you’re running an early-stage startup.
Additionally, you’ll likely need to hire someone under your CTO (or outsource) to actually write code for your technology.
If you do hire a CTO, you’re committing to have that person in a leadership position for a significant amount of time.
Before jumping into the CTO search, make sure that a visionary and strategist – manager – is what your business really needs.
Have confidence in yourself and your ability to hire and manage technical talent.
By creating a clear and articulate understanding of your business’s technical needs, you’ll be saving yourself a lot of time, investment, and frustration down the road.
Prioritize what your business needs, and whether that is more tactical (a developer) or more strategic and visionary (a CTO). You may be able to find both, but it’s likely that your needs will sway more to one role or the other.
Trust your gut, and take the time to research the variety of great options at your disposal before embarking on your CTO search.
About the Author
Selina McPherson is the vice president of marketing at Hatch Apps, an automated app development platform. Selina is a full-stack marketer and a digital trends junkie who loves writing about creativity, growth, and technology.