What Makes a Unicorn CTO?

The need to adopt modern technologies quickly while handling technical challenges makes the role of the CTO more important than ever.
Headshot of author Vlad Vahromovs
Vlad Vahromovs
Expert Contributor
August 10, 2021
Updated: August 12, 2021
Headshot of author Vlad Vahromovs
Vlad Vahromovs
Expert Contributor
August 10, 2021
Updated: August 12, 2021

At the leadership of any successful tech company, you’ll find a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) among the C-level executives. Even though a CTO often operates behind-the-scenes, this person is one of the key pillars in driving the company’s success. But what makes a CTO truly special?

What Makes a Unicorn CTO?

The ultimate dream of each up-and-coming venture is to become a billion-dollar company, or as they say in the business world, a unicorn. A unicorn CTO is the one whose unique set of tech and business-oriented skills can fuel the company’s explosive growth and drive to success.

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Traits of a Leading Chief Technology Officer

The CTO has the most dynamic and far-reaching key performance indicators out of all C-Suite capacities. According to Gartner, CTO’s key performance indicators (KPI) can stretch from the obvious tech-related ones—such as maintaining security issues or the level of tech adoption—to more business-oriented ones, which include customer engagement and return on investment (ROI) dynamics. The success metrics can differ greatly from one company to another. 

For instance, a CTO whose work revolves around innovation and technology may have their performance measured by their current innovations (and their prospects for the future). Similarly, a CTO focused on operations will see major issues, failures or incidents  may be evaluated by major issues, failures or incidents.

unicorn CTO

Without a doubt, a leading CTO must be a technology champion and must have the vision and take the lead in implementing innovation with streamlined effectiveness. However, they also require a high level of business skills and knowledge to communicate with the non-tech stakeholders how technologies and innovation can help the company achieve its goals. Most importantly, they need to be able to perform while harboring compatible and culturally flexible relationships across multiple facets of the organization. 

Read More About the CEO-CTO Relationship5 Conversations Every CEO and CTO Should Have

 

Critical Responsibilities of a CTO

The role of the CTO is somewhat agile and largely depends on the focus, needs and stage of the company's growth. Still, there are a couple of pillars that shape an excellent unicorn CTO.

A Leader in Technology

The CTO has a sophisticated and intricate role, and different CTOs will bring different sets of skills, experience and unique talent to complement the complexities of their job. Bradley Bonnen, Founder and CEO of iFlooded Restoration states that “CTOs are the backbone of every company's technology. The CTO is critical in making architectural decisions, committing to scalable infrastructure, and choosing what makes the final cut, whether your organization is a global distributor of food products or a creator of mobile applications.” 

The CTO can't lead a firm anywhere quickly without a clear (and preferably exciting) roadmap.

However, one thing that all CTOs must have in common is excellent knowledge and experience in technology. They must have the foresight to implement newer innovation and technological trends that have the power to disrupt their business strategies and goals. 

At the core of their responsibilities, CTOs must have a vision for technological strategies that will enable the organization to propel into the future, staying far above the rest. “Speaking from experience, the CTO must be aware of both the present and prospective marketplaces, as well as how to get something there. All the while, he or she must persuade the company to believe in his or her vision. The CTO can't lead a firm anywhere quickly without a clear (and preferably exciting) roadmap. In my opinion, strong vision and enthusiasm are two of the most memorable qualities that people remember about their favorite CTOs,” says Bonnen. 

They must have the foresight to implement newer innovation and technological trends that have the power to disrupt their business strategies and goals. 

Leadership in the CTO role mainly comprises of positive influence and strong communication. A CTO must have the ability to communicate his or her ideas and tech goals to non-technical teams and have an even stronger impact on their morale, making them excited about the abundance of possibilities that technology will unlock. 

In-Depth Governance of Technology

Control over the actual implementation of tech solutions is an instrumental responsibility of a CTO. It’s vital that investments pertaining to technology and innovation are regulated and meticulously kept in check. According to Bob Powers, CTO at OneStream, “Software technologies are constantly changing, and a CTO needs to remain current. A CTO should be able to get his or her hands dirty and be able to design or implement code directly.” It’s important to oversee every principle and policy—and ensure that every resource is managed with optimum efficiency.

CTOs are in a unique position to preach innovation by motivating and inspiring not only their teams, but the people outside their company as well.

The CTO will be required to manage a high volume of projects and work closely with various stakeholders to make sure all of their requirements are aligned and their expectations met. Along the way, the CTO will also need to develop an actionable technology roadmap. “A CTO must also be able to participate in calls with prospects and analysts, but the best CTOs are more comfortable in front of a keyboard or with an engineering team,” says Powers, emphasizing the flexibility and versatility of the role.

Research & Development in Innovation 

CTOs are in a unique position to preach innovation by motivating and inspiring not only their teams, but the people outside their company as well. Sebastian Schaeffer, CTO and owner of dofollow.io says, “The most important aspect of the CTOs job in this era of rapid digital transformation is communicating a strategic vision for digital change throughout the organization.” 

CTOs must implement credible insight and use them to integrate business model innovation before the same is done by their competitors. They must be able to drive change where it’s most needed. This ultimately means CTOs have to keep a vigilant eye on emerging trends and newer technologies as well as track customer intelligence, monitor competitors and keep an eye on the external market. “CTOs need to help facilitate this culture change by acting as sources of information and guidance and by identifying any inherent opportunities and threats involved in digital transformation. The modern CTO can make or break the success of their company over the next few years,” Schaeffer says.

As the CTO is the tech evangelist for their team, they must be able to indicate how this innovation or technology speaks to the customers—how the product can make their lives better or simpler.

Because the CTO is the leading representative of technology for their organization, they must exhibit technological expertise and insight to their customers, their investors and the overall business. The impact goes far beyond tech innovations: such a visionary approach is also vital for attracting top talent, and the importance and challenge of hiring tech professionals in today’s reality cannot be overestimated.

The Knack to Hire Talent

There’s no doubt that scouting for real talent is becoming a serious issue. Many businesses and organizations are headhunting for talented individuals. As qualified candidates are becoming rarer than diamonds, the duty falls to the CTO to play an instrumental role in the participation and scouting of industry experts for their development teams. 

The unicorn CTO has an eye for detail and a gut instinct that helps them quickly perform a qualitative analysis of the right candidates, knowing what individual would be a great team player, is the right cultural fit and possesses the best skills to further propel the company into the future. 

Product development always goes hand in hand with innovation—the roll-out of new disruptive products can very rarely happen without technology at its core.

A great leader can also put a team of intelligent and decisive individuals together and has a natural tendency to inspire leadership in others. Most important, a truly special CTO has the ability to attract and retain that talent. For example, let’s assume the company needs to hire a new developer. A great CTO will have the foresight and skill to recognize talent without industry bias—meaning, even if the potential candidate lacks the necessary number of years in experience, the CTO will know whether their skills as a developer will be an asset for the team. 

Product & Development  

Product development always goes hand in hand with innovation—the roll-out of new disruptive products can very rarely happen without technology at its core.

As the CTO is the tech evangelist for their team, they must be able to indicate how this innovation or technology speaks to the customers—how the product can make their lives better or simpler. Bob Powers of OneStream states, “An effective CTO must clearly understand the target customer, key users and the business problems they face and create a clear vision for the solution the organization is creating for customers.”

In addition, the CTO will always be expected to work as a primary technology partner to the CPO (Chief Product Owner) to create tech-enabled products. “They must build the solution and scale the engineering team as the platform evolves and as the customer base grows to ensure the organization can stay ahead of an increasing number of enhancement requests from external customers and partners, as well as internal stakeholders,” says Powers.

Business & Information Technology Enabler 

IT in business is about propelling critical technology investments that establish business operations, ensuring streamlined governance of systems and budgets. According to Alexander Myadelets, CTO and development director at CodeGym.cc, “A CTO can have many roles and responsibilities. I guess the most important, I would single out the translation of business requirements into a technical plan.”

Managing a complex IT infrastructure that includes core facets such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), finance and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is yet another fundamental CTO responsibility. After all, businesses have relied on critical enterprise systems to propel their objectives for decades. “I am, in a sense, a translator from a technical language into a business language. It is important for me to understand whether we can do something, what resources (people) we need for this, how long it will take, what technologies we will use,” Myadelets says.

 

Finding the Right CTO Is No Picnic

In the market for a rockstar CTO? Make yourself comfortable, because this is going to take a while. According to recent research by Inc. Magazine, it takes an average of 90 to 120 days to hire the right person. Add to this the time needed for proper onboarding, and you can easily be looking at a half-year marathon. And it’s not going to be an easy one: even industry leaders are fighting for top talent, as evidenced by a recent talent battle between Ford and Amazon.

Raising the talent in-house would be a great solution, but once again, be patient: according to the STNEXT CTO Survey 2020, for 78 percent of the respondents, it took five years or more to become a CTO, while 42 percent stated that took at least a decade to gain the desired position. Aspiring soon-to-be CTOs are most likely taking over the roles of Software Developers or Tech Leads prior to getting the cherished promotion. 

unicorn CTO

However, if you’re looking for a CTO and not willing to spend half a year on the search, here are  a couple of alternatives.

CTO-as-a-Service

CTO-as-a-Service, or CaaS, primarily means hiring a freelancer who has the same experience and skill sets as a full-time CTO, and basically operates as a part-time CTO on demand. Companies can hire such professionals either to deliver a specific project or set up certain processes for the tech team, and so on. This is an excellent alternative for companies that need the services of a talented CTO but can’t afford to hire one or just can’t find the right one to fit the team. 

A Part-Time Consultant

Consultants offer professional advice on various business aspects. Many small and medium businesses onboard consultants when companies require niche proficiencies. A talented and experienced consultant can steer a business to enhance productivity and competitiveness while staying in line with the trends. 

The main difference between a consultant and a CTO-as-a-Service is the level of their induction in business: consultants normally help out with high-level advice and are less involved in their actual implementation. 

Tech Team Outsourcing 

By partnering with a tech agency, you basically get access to a wide range of specialists along with a strong tech leader who acts as an external CTO. You’ll be working with a professional who has a broad spectrum of industry experience and has successfully completed a wide range of projects. The external CTO will have the ability to scale technologies and will have unparalleled access to a pool of well-coordinated professionals. 

In case you’re looking to outsource not just the actual development, but tech expertise as well, make sure that the vendor acts in a proactive, collaborative and innovative manner.  

CTOs are capable of helping your company achieve next-level success or sabotaging any prospects with a lack of innovative thinking.

In all, it’s difficult to define the core responsibilities of a CTO in just a few lines, as they work within a broad spectrum of capacities. A CTO has a perplexing role in the organization and has to wear many hats: from operating in areas such as technical executions, to operational and executive management, a leading CTO is an amalgamation of all of this experience and more. 

CTOs are capable of helping your company achieve next-level success or sabotaging any prospects with a lack of innovative thinking, so make sure you make the right decision when choosing a tech leader. Take your time onboarding them—whether an in-house executive or an outsource professional—and make sure your goals and expectations are aligned.

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