CTO Roles and Responsibilities in a Tech Startup: an Overview
Chief Technology Officer is one of the key persons in a tech company of any profile. However, it is impossible to establish a single set of daily tasks for this position without considering the exact type of company and the stage of its life cycle. As a company grows, delivers its products to the market and evolves, so does its CTO’s role definition. From developing the initial idea and writing code themselves to team management and shaping the long-term business vision, an ideal CTO can do it all. That explains why the average annual salary of a CTO in the US is as high as $163,000.
We at Surf have been developing mobile apps for over a decade and served as technological partners for companies of various industries at different stages of their growth. In the article, we’ll answer the question “What is the role of a CTO in a startup?”, define skills that are must-have for the position and talk about the Chief Technology Officers of renowned startups.
For this part, we chose five CTOs of world-famous companies — let’s take a look at their tasks, background and previous work experience.
Aristotle Balogh, Airbnb.
Graduate of The John Hopkins University with a degree in Electrical and Computer Science, Aristotle served as Google’s VP of Engineering and Yahoo! CTO before joining the Airbnb team in 2018. He participated in preparing the company for an IPO that took place in December 2020. As Airbnb’s Chief Technology Officer, Balough leads the development of infrastructure, engineering for payments, security solutions, as well as an AI-powered personalized customer experience.
Rathi Murthy, Expedia Services.
Former CTO of Gap clothing brand and Verizon Media conglomerate that unites such brands as Yahoo!, TechCrunch, and HuffPost, Murthy is a Chief Technology Officer and President of Expedia Services, the part of Expedia Group focused on AI, payment, customer experience and e-commerce technologies. A woman in a traditionally man-dominated industry, Rathi is a frequent speaker at conferences aimed at helping women build careers in the technological space.
Mike Schroepfer, Facebook.
A former vice president of engineering at Mozilla, Mike Schroepfer joined Facebook as VP of engineering in 2008 and was promoted to a CTO role in 2013. Over the years with the social media giant, Schroepfer oversaw expanding technical talent and its infrastructure during a period of Facebook’s intense growth. He also led the development of AI-powered systems that identify and prevent hateful and toxic posts from being published. In September 2021, Schroepfer announced his plans to step down from the CTO position in 2022 to dedicate more time for activities outside the company.
Chris Slowe, Reddit.
Soon after completing his Ph.D. in Physics at Harvard, Chris met Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman, the founders of Reddit, and became one of the company’s first employees. After Reddit was acquired by Condé Nast, Slowe left the company and worked as Chief Scientist at Hipmunk before joining Reddit’s team back in 2015. In his work, Chris focuses on security, data compliance and site integrity, while regularly using three skills he learned at Harvard: critical thinking, modeling and using statistics.
Gerri Martin-Flickinger, Starbucks.
Another uncommon and prominent example of a female CTO is Gerri Martin-Flickinger. Before joining Starbucks Coffee Company she held senior technical roles at Adobe, McAfee and VeriSign. At Starbucks, Gerri oversees technology strategies that enable continuous improvement of customer experience across the company’s global branches. She also led the development of ordering and payment via mobile, voice ordering, social gifting and cloudification of business. In addition to her main job, Martin-Flickinger serves on the Advisory Board of Arizona State University’s Fulton School of Engineering and the Board of Directors of Tableau Software.
How CTO’s responsibilities evolve in a company
Regardless of the company’s size, age and budget, the main role of CTO usually comes down to ensuring the company’s technologies satisfy the requirements of its business strategy. However, how it is achieved depends greatly on a CTO’s personal approach, industry and, more importantly, the stage of a company’s development. Let’s see how different periods of a company’s life require different types of CTO.
At the beginning of a startup, there are usually two or three people: Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Chief Product Officer (CPO) and CTO. Together, they discuss product ideas and evaluate their feasibility. After settling down the details, they work out a business plan and a path to building the product. With their technical expertise, the CTO actively participates in concept development, helps the team to choose the right technologies, plan the development process and estimate expenses and product timeline.
Surf collaborated with other companies’ teams and CTOs at a project ideation stage many times. Labirint app for couriers and drivers is just one example of a project, in which Surf took up the task to build an app that would transform the delivery service of one of the Top-25 online retailers in Russia.
Together with Labirint CTO and other team members, we developed a native app that automates the process of delivery making it transparent for customers, couriers and managers. Using the app, a courier can plan a route taking into account traffic and delivery schedule, accept payments via the smartphone’s NFC (no pin pad required) and make refunds if a client refuses part of the order. The app can work offline, storing the data in a local database and synchronizing it as soon as the connection gets restored.
Prior to the development, Labirint provided detailed specifications of the future app, but as it was later decided to make an app for mobile phones instead of tablets, Surf actively suggested interface improvements and other adjustments to accommodate the mobile interface. As a result, the new app significantly reduced paperwork for the company, boosted up delivery rates by 20% and served as a base for an app for Labirint drivers who deliver orders in bulk to pick-up points.
Development of MVP
When the team reaches a consensus on what they plan to create and define short-term goals and objectives, it’s time to build a minimum viable product (MVP). In tech startups, an MVP is a prototype of an app or a service with key functionalities that showcases the product’s main concept to investors and clients. Usually, at this stage, every tech-related issue falls on the shoulders of the CTO, from choosing tools and designing tech architecture to writing code and testing. Of course, there might be 1-2 developers on board already, but the CTO should be prepared to back them up with any tasks that come up in the process.
Talking about building MVPs, Surf has an extensive experience in consulting CTOs and helping companies build app prototypes. When we took up the development of The Hole video streaming app for Medium Quality, our goal was to make users choose to view the content in the app instead of YouTube. Since it was crucial for our client to bring the app to market as soon as possible, we suggested Flutter cross-platform framework. Because Flutter makes it possible to create both iOS and Android apps from a single codebase, the time of app development decreases by 30% compared to native development. Also, writing apps on Flutter requires fewer developers and is about 40% cheaper. After developing an MVP along with infrastructure (backend, content delivery network, admin panel), Surf and the client’s team continue upgrading the app, carrying out A/B testing and improving retention rate.
Team management & reaching market fit
After the MVP sees the light of the day, the team begins to continuously improve the product by polishing use case scenarios, adding functionality and fixing issues. The ultimate goal here is to deliver a competitive product to the market. To make the process of improvement effective the company needs to scale its team. At this point, the CTO is responsible for overseeing the hiring of tech talent and establishing unified working practices and coding standards. Also, the CTO ensures effective deployment of updates, manages security risks and makes decisions on how to scale the company’s tech solutions.
In many cases Surf has worked with CTOs on improving and reworking apps of their companies to increase customer satisfaction. An app for Bethowen online shop for pets is an example of how the development process transitions from basic functionality to gradual addition of new features. Established in 1993, Bethowen used an out-of-the-box mobile app with outdated UX and no support for custom marketing campaigns, anb Surf was hired to build the new version of the app. After workshop sessions with the client’s CTO and other leading managers, we created a roadmap that defined priorities and what features are to be included in every app release.
The first version of the new Bethowen app had only basic options: adding items to the cart, placing an order and payment. In the following releases, we added multiple filters to an online catalog, additional payment options, integration with a loyalty program and made the checkout process faster and more convenient. What’s also important, we provided seamless user transition from the old app. The first two weeks since the new app release showed a 15% conversion boost, which is considered a great result in the industry. Surf team still supports the project and rolls out updates for the app.
Long-term growth and vision
When the startup reaches a certain degree of success and becomes a larger company, the CTOs can focus on sustainable long-term company evolution. They optimize workflows, participate in shaping product vision and closely follow the latest technologies that can be utilized in the project. If the company decides to launch new products, they help with team management and allocation of resources. At this stage, one of the CTO’s main goals is to ensure the company stays on top of the game among its competitors.
Because the roles and responsibilities of CTO are so numerous and diverse, the job demands a rather extensive skill set as well. Let’s see what are the main categories of skills Chief Technology Officers use daily.
Technical and software knowledge. Because CTO is a leading software architect in a company, a well-rounded knowledge of available technical solutions is a must. This includes knowledge of how to: choose the right technology stack and development tools for the company’s products; configure and scale infrastructure; design a database; optimize the application architecture and other aspects. For CTO, it is also important to continuously grow and widen knowledge, so that the company can use the newest and most effective tools.
Developer skills. During the development of MVP, it is very likely that CTO would write some code themself. Even if the company hires developers right away, the Chief Technology Officer may participate in the initial code reviews, help with software and API documentation, and manage third-party integrations.
Security and compliance. Proper security practices will help the company avoid hacker attacks with subsequent financial losses or failed audits and large fines. This is especially true for fintech startups that have access to banking details and other financial data. Before a full-fledged IT security department is set up, the CTO would need to be the one who ensures the company’s servers and data are protected.
Team leader. The CTO is the number one tech specialist in a team; they are responsible for overseeing the hiring of developers, establishing a productive working culture and mentoring their co-workers. Also, the CTO determines KPIs, breaks down complex tasks, monitors progress and conducts reviews of the jobs done.
DevOps. Another important set of skills for the CTO is that of a DevOps engineer. They need to have a strong understanding in such areas as infrastructure, code release & deployment, automated testing and performance assessment & monitoring.
Digital strategy. Also, to participate with other senior executives in planning the company’s growth, expenses and development, the CTO must be an excellent strategist. Choosing the right workflow, keeping the technical budget in check, adapting the approach to emerging technologies, challenges and shifting market landscape — these are all parts of the CTO’s job.
CTO is a multi-dimensional role that requires technical expertise, team leading skills and the ability to make sound decisions both in long and short-term planning. Finding the right person for a CTO position, who possesses soft and hard (technical) skills, can be a challenge. What makes the role of CTO in a startup even more demanding is how a person should be ready to assume new responsibilities and take up new tasks, and then, as the company evolves and grows, delegate some of them to the right team members and focus more on a strategic aspect of work.
Surf has been making mobile apps for more than 10 years using native and cross-platform technologies. We’ve been technological partners to a variety of businesses, from large banks to digital streaming platforms, and we’ve always worked tightly with the client’s team and CTO to find the best and most effective solutions for their needs. In case you want to build a mobile app for your business, we’d be glad to discuss and estimate its costs or serve as tech consultants for your team. Fill in the form and we’ll contact you shortly.