How to Find a CTO

Posted on October 18, 2010. Filed under: CTO, Development, Events, Leadership, Personal, Recruitment | Tags: , , , , , , , |

One of the most common requests I get from portfolio companies and entrepreneurs goes along the lines of:

  • “How and where can I find a CTO/tech co-founder/key developer?”

This is invariably followed by:

  • “How do I go about selecting and assessing candidates?”

Whilst this post will be primarily aimed at companies where software forms an integral part of the business, there are some answers to these questions that relate to any type of early stage company.

Personal Experience
Before looking at these questions it’s probably a good idea to tell you a bit about my background and experience of recruiting.

My passion for computers was ignited, in the 70′s, at school. It occurs to me, writing this post, that I was always the first person to get the latest electronic calculators: Indeed I still have the ones in this photo.  These cheap calculators were bought with money scrapped together from milk rounds, newspaper runs, plus growing and selling fruit and vegetables to the village shop.

The flames really took hold when I got my hands on the electronic analog computer in the physics lab at school. I can vividly recall the excitement of quickly programming traffic lights using a few op-amps and a plug-board. Did you know that computing was once done non-digitally? If not, might want to read this short article on Analog vs Digital computers and this for a more detailed history on analog computing.

Now I’d have loved to have bought a PC in those days but frankly I could not afford one until the Sinclair ZX Spectrums came out in later years. Anyway in my country backwoods world, Apples were things you sold to the village store. With the ZX, I really started having fun especially with the graphics. This was enhanced by programming on mainframes at university, and in industry during vacations. The problem was that to get any decent time on the university mainframe meant staying in the faculty at party time, when nobody else was using it.

In industry it was like: “What do you mean you want to write a program? The computer is for running the payroll”. Having got over that objection, with the help of more senior colleagues, I was still appalled that we had not plotting or graphics capability: Graphs had to be done by writing characters on a line printer. This in a company with 30,000 employees! So I took the opportunity, at an event, to make a case directly to the CEO. A few weeks later we had a PC: At the cost of embarrassing and no doubt pissing-off the Technical Director! But now we had some graphics capability the visualize the simulated motion of the physical products myself and colleagues were designing for manufacture.

Later as a co-founder and CTO of a software company, I got to pursue further my developed passion for solving problems and creating tools using programming. It is true to say that I was never the most brilliant coder: Programming for me was and remains a means to an end. But I will contend that I was extremely good at solving difficult technical problems and creating easy-to-use, albeit technically complex products, using programming.

As a CTO, and later CEO, I was instrumental in building a team of 40 people across 5 global offices. Since we developed almost all our technology in-house and outsourced little, most of our staff were technical and indeed based in the UK office. Software development often had to be done for things you would never do nowadays. For example, myself and colleague wrote a 3D graphics library because there was no such thing on PCs with DOS at the time.

By the time I was CEO, we had a sizeable development team deployed on four products: One of which I had been chief architect for and another one which I had pretty much written from scratch. But all these products were a team effort, built by hiring great people. As lead on recruitment I discovered a further passion for interviewing, assessing and recruiting people.

Funnily enough, speaking with a lot of CTO/CEO types nowadays, I have often noticed a distinct lack of enthusiasm for interviewing and recruitment. I find this hard to understand, quite frankly: What can be more motivating and interesting that meeting with, assessing and recruiting smart people? People with whom you can build a great company.

Oh yes, and finally, a few years ago I started a small specialist executive search project which taught me a whole lot more about how to connect with and find talented people.

Practical steps and CTO types
But let’s get practical now and have a look at some tips on recruiting, questions you should ask and some awesome blog posts on this and related topics. Also I’ll point you to some resources that can help with this problem and hopefully some of you will chip in with some comments and tips.
I am going to ignore the well-known conventional recruitment options of advertising,  job boards and executive search agencies. It may well be that these can help solve your problem but many of the companies that I interact with can’t afford those luxuries. For those that can, I’m sure you’ll be keen to see how you might slash your recruitment costs.
First some questions you should ask yourself, particularly with regard to CTOs:
  • What do you really expect your CTO to do?
  • What kind of CTO do you require? Details at this paperbut in outline do you want:
    • CTO as “Infrastructure Manager”
    • CTO as “Big Thinker””
    • CTO as “Technology Visionary and Operations Manager”
    • CTO as “External-facing Technologist”
  • How much would you be prepared to pay your ideal hire, above that of an acceptable hire?
  • What are your intentions with regard to shares and options?

Recruitment Tips:

With regard to CTO’s, assuming you don’t have one already: Always consider hiring a lead developer and then if they have the chops, promote them to CTO. When recruiting lead developers and potential CTOs you, of course, want somebody who is a team player and is potentially a good manager and leader.

You also want somebody who is ambitious. But be wary of ambitious people who are ambitious for themselves and not for the company. You are likely to be a stepping stone to their next job; soon after you have begun to see the fruits of your investment in them. As put by Andy Grove, ex-CEO of Intel:

  • The right kind of ambition is: Ambition for the company’s success with the executive’s own success only coming as a by-product of the company’s victory
  • The wrong kind of ambition is ambition for the executive’s personal success regardless of the company’s outcome.
  • You can read more on that topic here at the blog of Ben Horowitz.

I am very much in agreement with Paul Graham about hiring good people for any role in start-ups and about developers in particular. He says that you need to hire “someone who takes their work a little too seriously; someone who does what they do so well that they, pass right through professional and, cross over into obsessive.”

from xkcd.com

Now I completely agree with this: Of all the really great hires and colleagues that I have worked with, I can’t think of a single one who was not somewhat obsessive-compulsive. Not to the extent of having a disorder you understand, but somebody who was incredibly meticulous, tending towards perfectionist and often completely wrapped up in solving a problem, completing a task and shipping on time.

Paul Graham expands on hiring programmers, as follows:

“For programmers we had three additional tests. Was the person genuinely smart? If so, could they actually get things done? And finally, since a few good hackers have unbearable personalities, could we stand to have them around? That last test filters out surprisingly few people. We could bear any amount of nerdiness if someone was truly smart. What we couldn’t stand were people with a lot of attitude. But most of those weren’t truly smart, so our third test was largely a restatement of the first. When nerds are unbearable it’s usually because they’re trying too hard to seem smart. But the smarter they are, the less pressure they feel to act smart. So as a rule you can recognize genuinely smart people by their ability to say things like “I don’t know,” “Maybe you’re right,” and “I don’t understand x well enough.”

That resonates much with my own experience. I would also add that, in my view, really smart people have a large dose of humility. This means they are not worried about asking questions, or for help, when other clever or political people might be too proud or arrogant to do so. Smart people recognise their limitations, seek help and then learn and grow as a result. If you are interested in more wise words from Paul Graham on startups here is a link to the full article.

Here is another interesting post on how to recognise a good developer where positive and negative indicators are cited. Positive indications are programming projects outside work and before university whilst negative signs are learning new technologies only on courses and a lack of passion.

In the case where you are looking for a CTO co-founder, or indeed any co-founder, the following two articles are interesting.

  • The first one is written by an entrepreneur turned seed investor
  • Whilst the second gives a more legal perspective.

My last  personal tip is as follows:

  • Don’t be afraid of recruiting a great person with the minimum necessary skill set over a person, who you may have doubts about, but who has an impressive skill set.

Some of the best hires I ever made where with passionate, determined, relatively unskilled team players who learned new skills on the job, and no doubt at home. They invariably became more effective than those with better qualifications and an apparently impressive CV. They quickly acquired new skills. Notably the ones the company needed rather than a skill they wanted on their CV.

Resources:

Now what about resources for finding people? Beyond the conventional means, here is a list of ideas that will cost only a small amount of cash or nothing at all, except for your time:

  • Search on LinkedIn and indeed place adverts there
  • Post a job on Crunchboard
  • Check out Twitter lists: I keep one of geeks here
  • Open source developers: You can check out their work after all! You will need to look in several places.
  • There are several cofounder sites out there. It’s a big problem and nobody has yet cracked it so most are not much use unless you are in Silicon Valley. However these two are better than most, plus there is a raft of answers now appearing on Quora on other sites:
  • Also freelancers: Some are freelancing in the hope of hitting upon a great permanent opportunity and you can always hire them for a project first to check them out before making a bigger commitment:
    • One suggestion is Guru which puts you in touch with freelance developers
    • Another useful UK freelancer site is Peopleperhour
    • vworker is an amazing site for engaging with freelancers and spotting tech talent
  • Engage in developer meetups: Again these take time and some intelligent searching but check out
  • This list is a far from being exhaustive and, no doubt, I will have missed some gems. What can you suggest to add to this list?

Since I wrote this post, this related answer on Quora, has attempted to survey the various resources you might look at.

What are you own experiences of recruiting and trying to recruit?

I’d love to hear from you and so would other readers.

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    About

    I help entrepreneurs and small high growth potential companies in Sussex, Surrey, London & sometimes further afield. Flexible to your needs but typically help in raising investment finance and mentoring. Previously I was co-founder, CTO then CEO of a software company which we sold to a NASDAQ listed company

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