I recently coached yet another startup, and the founder was wondering if the lead developer could become the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of his company. For a lot of founders, this makes a lot of sense since they’ve already built a business relationship with this person and know that they work well together.

However, a great developer will not necessarily become a great CTO.

To determine if your employee or co-founder can handle the new responsibilities, evaluate them on these four skills.

Developer vs CTO

A great developer codes and builds digital products efficiently. CTOs still need to have hands-on experience, but the way they relate to their co-workers, tackle projects, and consider what’s beyond programming is vastly different.

When you’re looking for a CTO in your own team, the technical skills are obviously required, but the capabilities associated with the job beyond that might not be as easy to spot. Knowing this, you have to see your candidate as a person first. This means paying attention to their attitude and aptitude in order to identify if they have the potential to fulfill your expectations.

Human relations in a tech environment

We’ll start with the most important one: how well does your developer relate to others?

A CTO is a leader. There could be better developers or better programmers, but the role’s strength lies in the willingness and ability to share knowledge, make people grow and take risks, rather than letting developers fend for themselves. A CTO should focus on teaching methodologies, mainly how to do things, while accepting people as they are, understanding their strengths and weaknesses.

Use the following table to evaluate your developer on his or her ability to become your startup’s CTO:


Example situation

Look for


How does this person behave in everyday work situations?
  • Brainstorming
  • Informal meetings
  • Small talks
  • Highly social
  • Assertive
  • Recluse
  • Non participative
Does this person value other people’s opinions?
  • Brainstorming
  • Prototyping
  • Retrospectives and feedback
  • Active speaker and listener
  • Welcomes criticism
  • Has a big ego
  • Ignores advice
  • Resents criticism
Does this person take responsibility for his own actions and performance?
  • Misunderstandings
  • Time mismanagement
  • Retrospectives and feedback
  • Asks for help
  • Recognizes mistakes
  • Corrects bad behavior
  • Makes up excuses
  • Blames others
  • Charges unjustly

Not just a problem solver, but a tech-solution finder

As we already covered, a CTO is not just someone with a good tech background. You need someone with first-hand experience, but who doesn’t rely solely on that. Someone who understands that he or she doesn’t know it all. For example: if you present a project to a developer and they are ready to start right away, they are definitely not ready to take on the role. The best signal is if they prefer to take at least some time to research beforehand.

Unfortunately, preparation is not something inexperienced developers have yet learned to prioritize. They are more concerned about how much money they’re going to earn themselves; as opposed to a potential CTO who will be more concerned with saving the company money. When an early-stage startup wants to test its theory, it’ll always be best if they can get a working app in just a couple of days, instead of months.

But achieving this means less developing time, and therefore less money for the developer. So go for someone with enough work ethic to reuse existing solutions for the long-term benefit of the company, and in spite the short-term economic drawbacks for themselves. If you’d like to explore more about the selflessness of leadership, go ahead and check out this TED talk.

Market understanding

Skills are indeed important when choosing the person that will guide your startup in choosing and developing technologies. Nevertheless, that person’s interest in your company—beyond tech—also plays a huge role in choosing the right profile. Their only question shouldn’t be, “Where do I place the button?”

Your CTO should not only understand your company’s business model, but should also go as far as suggesting ideas that actually challenge it. The technical solutions this role provides should test and filter your business hypotheses, and that would definitely be worth investing a bit more upfront.

Planning your development

The worst thing a developer can do to a founder is underestimate developing time. You really don’t want to lose your client’s trust if you miss the promised launch date. Unfortunately, this is very common with younger and less-experienced developers, and it causes founders to consider outsourcing since their selling point is their speed. But don’t be fooled, check out this other post where I break down outsourcing, and if it’s right for you.

The truth is that providing detailed and realistic budgets and timelines is a huge part of what a CTO does, while still anticipating and accounting for difficulties and risks, warning developers, and preparing the team to navigate through all of it.

It’s a big responsibility, but any developer could potentially become a CTO one day. The key is humility and the desire to improve. They should always have the willingness to grow, learn, ask for help, ask for coaching, ask to be taught. Most developers at some point in their careers think they have all the answers. The CTOs are those who won’t stop researching until they get THE answer—the most effective way to develop a solution that’s best for you.

And on that note, I want what’s best for you too, so please check out my other blog posts, AskMyCTO videos, and startup courses. They are filled top to bottom with content that can help you build your startup successfully. If you want to reach me directly for some coaching or mentoring, you can do so as well here.


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