Three Golden Rules to Finding a CTO


On his CV he put 'sign' under one of his coding languages...
We Give You Banana. You Build Scalable Infrastructure. OK?

This article is not meant for Tech Guys – this article is for the legitimate Biz Guys, whether you’re a tech guy who’s decided to run the business-side of a project instead of the development side, or if you’re someone with great product vision. I have watched many a biz guy hunt for a developer, and I’ve read many a job post for a developer, and it needs to stop.

Rule #1: You don’t know how to hire a developer.

You don’t have the technical background and managerial experience to know how to organize a development team – if you do, then you’re the CTO. If not, you need to find one. Only a CTO is fit to build a development team. So the question is: how do you get yourself a CTO

But first, a story…

Imagine if you will, that you are a non-technical startuper looking to jump on board a project. You know your skill set: critical thinking, multi-tasking, communication skills, sales experience, etc. You are looking for the right startup to get behind and put your all into, and you run across an annoucement:

CTO looking for Biz Guy for startup

Great Startup tackling the *Insert Trendy Term* Space – beta product on the way and we need a sales guy to put his all into it. Looking for someone who can make phone calls, create excel files with lots of numbers on themtake care of paying people, and raise money for us.

This is what I hear when I listen to founders trying to hire technical guys on board – a list of tasks that any developer will do in any development function: “We’re looking for a ninja/pirate/superhero/unicorn/great iOS Developer: must have *too high of expectations* years of experience, must be familiar with Cocoa, xCode, and OOP”

Don’t sell the 9to5, sell the adventure

All this ad has done is describe the job functions that any Biz Guy would do, it hasn’t even done the most critical part: sell the Startup. I don’t mean to pitch your company, but think about why a developer would be excited to develop your product: will they have creative control? What space are you trying to innovate in?

Three key points follow:

  1. Sell your startup: The CTO is not joining because he just loves coding in Python, he’s joining because he loves disruption, he loves the challenge, and he wants to feel apart of that challenge. Your pitch for a CTO will demonstrate how you intend to integrate him/her into the Founding team in terms of key decision-making. If you make the position sound like a coder monkey, then you will only attract coder monkeys.
  2. Identify the weaknesses: You’re not going to pay your CTO in the beginning – so why should he stop taking a salary? Try reassuring them, such as showing how you are connected to the investor community and how this will ultimately strengthen your chances of raising seed funding. When you are pitching a startup to anyone, the key is to answer the questions that the audience is thinking them the moment they think of the questions – this assures them that you are aware of all ends of the situation, and leaves them with no objections at the end of your pitch
  3. Don’t get too specific: I am not the CTO, so I don’t know what languages our product should be built in. Let someone who is interested by the challenge tell me how they want to approach it. After all, even if I have an infrastructure in mind, having a candidate confirm my thoughts confirms that he is on the same wave length as me.

Don’t Hire Today, Hire Three Years Ago

The first mistake in hiring a CTO is thinking you’ll go and meet him today. A founding team’s ability to work together is tested very hard over the first years, and the more experience you have working with, professional or not, your founding members, the better a chance you have at surviving the gauntlet. However, if you must find one now, or the

But Where do I find them!?

“If you learn how to code, you can do it yourself.” I didn’t drop my Computer Science minor to learn how to code, so I don’t expect you to, either. Here’s my secret list:

  1. Startup Weekend, seriously: Great startups don’t pop up over night, but great (read: available) startupers DO congregate in one place for 54 hours during certain weekends. Don’t go to startup a company, go to meet developers.
  2. Don’t Inbreed: I leave town as often as possible to go find my startupers. I find events going on in other cities or even other countries, and I go and meet people. I know startupers in about 7 different countries, and in about 7 different cities in France, and some day I might have an idea that interests them.
  3. Pillage, Murder, and Steal: You know your idea is better than that startup down the street – they’re wasting valuable development resources on an idea that will go nowhere. If they’re working in the same space as you, even better – they will have a head start on creative contribution. Just because someone’s in a project now doesn’t mean they will be in six months. So tell them what your idea is, tell them you want them to work with you even though their busy, then spend the next few months pointing out why their idea is bad

For your viewing pleasure, here’s a real-life example of how to pitch a CTO…


The Rude Baguette – an English-language blog talking about the French startup/tech/entrepreneurial scene – is looking for a Chief Technical blOgger (see what i did there?). We’re looking for someone with a broad range of experience to help us disrupt an ecosystem, not only with articles covering the technical scene, but by building a website that will take this startup scene GLOBAL. We’ve already got some plans, but we’re open to more:

  • We want to bring the event calendar to end all event calendars for Paris, France, and Europe – we’ve got ideas, and we’d love to hear yours!
  • We want to create a job board the doesn’t cost your food salary to post, but weeds out the ‘side projects’
  • Got some blog experience? WordPress would be cool, but we’ve got no allegiance, so if you can convince us to change to Tumblr, we’re down
  • If you haven’t notice, we blog. In English. And so will you. We want someone who is in the developer scene in Paris/France.

This job doesn’t pay today… unless you count never paying to go to another European startup event in your life! We’re currently working with potential sponsors, and we sure as hell don’t like to work for free, and you can bet your ass you’ll be getting a piece of that sweet-ass sponsor pie. If you’ve got questions or think you’re up to the task, shoot us an email at [email protected]
Am I nuts? Are my ideas stupid? Let us know HOW you found a CTO!

13 Responses

  1. AA

    Great paper Liam since the only thing we hear these days is “you need an awesome team” which is not easy for non technical people like me….
    I like your “where do i find them?” but the following question is “how do i broadcast this amazing job offer”….

    • John Best (@redrookdigital)

      You could always (and I’m using a link Liam gave me) look at I don’t know what the skills mix would be like there, but it could be a great way to find a CTO, and see them in action / see if you gel. You already know they’re interested in starting something!

  2. John Best (@redrookdigital)

    This is the perfect counterpart to the “startup bassist” article. Its easy if your CTO is part of the founding team, but if they aren’t, that hiring decision is crucial.
    Think of the early team as a microcosm of the business as a whole. Sure, you can bring people on to make your vision happen, but shouldn’t you be seeing how they can advance and enhance it?

  3. ziad salloum

    Good luck in your quest. Actually just yesterday I had the RUDE thinking that your blogging frequency is low (one post every 2 or 3 days). Sometimes, I ask myself what the hell I am doing pressing refresh on my browser.
    I believe that you need to shake it up a little more
    Bon courage

  4. Pierre 'catwell' Chapuis

    Good article. Most important points:
    * “Don’t get too specific”
    I went to a Startup Weekend once. Half those who pitched said they needed “Rails developers”. I knew they would fail to produce a good prototype. This works for startups too.
    Actually if you have a bit more experience you will try to choose practitioners of languages and tools you’ve never heard of. They are often better at what they’re doing, more passionate, and they know they will not have the opportunity to use them at large companies anyway.
    * “Pillage, Murder, and Steal”
    How do you know if someone is good? Answer: look at what he’s built. If possible, choose an employee or CTO of a startup that built a technically great product but failed. He will be good from a technical PoV *and* have experience of 1) working at a startup and 2) failure. Perfect CTO!

  5. bcurdy

    Good article but I’d add an important caveat. A fantastic coder has 95% chance to be, at first, a lousy CTO. Keep that in mind when looking for one.
    A CTO is somebody with a large network. He/She must have the ability to attract great people into the company. Many technical people don’t enjoy networking and if they don’t, they won’t make good CTOs. They might be a legendary team lead though. Best CTO of our time: Werner Vogel, from Amazon.
    A CTO might be in love with the technical challenges of your startup BUT if he’s not in love with your product, don’t get him in. This happens all the time and it’s a recipe for disaster. A tech company who falls in love with its technology is pretty much dead. A CTO doesn’t care about how cool a technology is or not, he cares about users and product development.
    Too many startups don’t take the ‘C’ and the ‘O’ in CTO seriously. A CTO must have some business and management sense. They’ll deal with people and strategic issues, while leading product development. It is a really difficult position, as any C-level position.
    Hiring is difficult and the recommendations on this article will definitely help. Going to python/ruby/js meetups is a good way to find those well-connected people with experience.
    BTW, if you want to join my company as a CTO, the position just (re)opened 😉

  6. Gabriel

    Nice article! Third point especially true. You don’t hire an artistic director by telling him what the next collection should look and feel like.
    I think the rude CTO job offer itself is a case in point: we’re startups, we should differentiate ourselves from the companies we don’t want to look like as clearly as possible, insist on the unique perks of the job and do away with uber-boring job offers.
    On hiring a CTO:
    (a) he’s a founder. So you’ll hire on an indescribable mix of skills / personal fit. Scoring A+ on both is ideal, but rare. But ideal. But rare. Life is tough. Deal with it. Try it out and see, that’s what vesting cliffs are for.
    (b) he’s not a founder. But you’re a small team, so the human/execution equilibrium is crucial. So it’s like he’s a founder. So it’s like (a)
    On hiring, not specifically CTOs some good ideas are to take from non-startups and startups alike. More than being fun, job offers should be tailored so that only a certain audience will ever even think to apply. Plenty of good examples out there.
    How Google started recruiting:
    How hipster is recruiting. Page was online ages before anybody really knew what hipster wanted to pivot into:
    How a British intelligence agency is recruiting:
    [product placement alert] How we are recruiting:
    Gabriel @teleportd

  7. Marc Picornell (@marcpicornell)

    Liam, good article. People in startup are most of the time taking their first dev. as a CTO.
    Except if you find a very talented and gift person you will end with many issues.
    Organizing the IT of your startup and not only the development side.
    Somebody who will be able to scale out all the bloody things. So yes I agree totally a CTO is probably not your first developer and you’ll have to think ahead to avoid all the pitfalls you might encounter during the first 3 years.

  8. Chris

    I’m currently seeking a founding member of our team to lead the backend of our product. This post is immensely helpful, and I will try to implement your suggestions in other correspondence.
    Thank you.

  9. Beanstalk Giant

    Interesting but I find the whole article haphazard, lacking coherence. Didn’t even understand more than half of it. It feels like it is catering for a cto looking for a startup, instead of the other way around

  10. Shiplu Mokaddim

    I expected “Rule #2” and “Rule #3”.

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