4 non-technical skills of a great startup CTO

September 15, 2022

CTOs mostly come from very technical backgrounds.

So when it comes to moving up into a leadership role, often there’s a misconception that a CTO is there to listen out for anything techy and report back.

Instead, the CTO is a member of the leadership team and their primary responsibility (along with the rest of the C-suite) is to drive the business forward.

In a candid interview with our founder & CEO Phil Howie, JD Trask (CEO at Raygun) shared what makes a great tech leader and the soft skills that a CTO needs to learn and implement to be effective in their role.

Adopt a business mindset

As JD Trask said: “you’re no longer on the tech team.”

By being a business-minded leader, a startup CTO also must be cognisant of the stage an business is at and if they’re the right person to fit that role.

In a startup, a CTO is going to be much more hands-on than a CTO in a larger company.

“There’s no ivory tower. You can’t afford ivory towers yet in a startup. You’re gotta be the person that is helping bring in industry knowledge and keeping ahead of those trends. But most importantly, is actually connecting the technology with the reality of the business world, the customers, and all of that,” explains JD.

Deliver the tough messages

The challenge for a lot of CTOs—and business leaders in general—is that it’s a tight labour market.

Many tech leaders are not prepared to rock the boat at the risk of losing talent.

“People are afraid to sometimes give direct feedback, you know?” says JD. “They urge towards niceties because they’re afraid people will leave, and they think that makes them good at the soft skills, because there’s no fires.”

In reality, that’s not what makes a good leader. No fires usually means that the CTO is not delivering those messages that help people grow.

As a tech leader, you need to get familiar with having tough conversations.

Prepare for change

Dealing with change within the business has always been part of the role of the CTO.

Yet, as JD shares, it has shifted from tech to people. “You can’t just put a product in and expect the outcome.”

Often the focus is on the product, when in reality, “the cost is not in the product.” It’s in the time needed to reskill your team, the integration work needed to change your workflow, and the overall organisational cost to adopt a new product.

“The product piece is the cheap part,” says JD.

Be visible and drive accountability

If you’re aspiring to tech leadership, there are steps you can be taking now—wherever you’re at in your career—to progress towards that path.

Not only can you adopt a business mindset early, but it’s also important to increase your visibility within your startup.

JD suggests sending a weekly email sharing something of interest to the entire company. “If you are the person who highlights the things that have been achieved or what you’ve gotten done, you are going to be on the radar of those leaders, and you’re going to stand out.”

By raising your own visibility and being accountable for your work, you’re able to push yourself forward and gain the attention and respect of those around you.

For the full interview with JD Trask of Raygun, check out our YouTube channel. New episodes of the Upwards podcast are released every Friday.

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