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From Coding to Leadership: How CTOs Adapt to the Changing Demands of a Scaling Startup

Author Ella Napata |

July 28, 2023

From Coding to Leadership How CTOs Adapt to the Changing Demands of a Scaling Startup

As startup technology companies progress through different growth stages, their CTOs face a significant transformation in their roles and responsibilities. In the early days, CTOs wear many hats, deeply involved in product development, coding, hiring, and team management. However, as the company scales, this hands-on approach becomes unsustainable. The article explores the challenges and necessary steps for CTOs to transition from player-coaches to strategic leaders. It delves into the importance of delegation, time management for coding, and the development of management skills. Additionally, it presents the concept of fractional CTOs as a viable solution for startups still being prepared for a full-time CTO. Ultimately, with the right mindset and strategies, startup CTOs can thrive in their leadership roles, ensuring the success of their technology organizations as they scale up. 

From Coding to Leadership How CTOs Adapt to the Changing Demands of a Scaling Startup

The Startup CTO: Wearing Many Hats Isn’t Sustainable at Scale

At an early-stage startup, the CTO role typically requires wearing many hats. CTOs are often deeply involved in product development, coding, hiring, and team management. While this broad scope of responsibility is exciting during a startup’s early days, it quickly becomes unsustainable as the company begins to scale.

Validation, Efficiency & Scale Stage

According to data from Startup Genome, the average tech startup has between 10 to 50 employees at the “validation” stage, 100 to 500 employees at the “efficiency” stage, and 500 to 1,000+ employees at the “scale” stage. As startups progress through these stages, CTOs go from leading a small team to managing departments of 50 engineers or more.

CTOs Must Development Management Skills

With a team of just ten engineers, a CTO can stay closely involved in daily development work while guiding product and hiring decisions. But leading a team of 100 or 200 engineers requires dedicated focus and management skills. CTOs who try to maintain a broad, hands-on role at this scale will quickly become overwhelmed, unable to give any area the necessary strategic direction.

Delegate Technical Responsibilities

At a certain inflection point, startup CTOs must transition from being player-coaches who code and manage, to leaders who delegate technical responsibilities to a strong engineering management team. This transition allows CTOs to focus on high-level strategic planning and company-wide decision-making. Some CTOs hesitate to give up coding and hands-on development, but holding onto these responsibilities for too long can stunt a startup’s growth.

For startup CTOs, evolving from a hands-on “maker” to a strategic leader and manager is a challenging but necessary transition. Letting go of technical control and trusting your team to execute is difficult, but the only way to sustainably lead a high-growth technology organization. With the right mindset and management practices, a startup CTO can successfully navigate this transition and thrive as a leader through all stages of scale.

Losing the Technical: How CTOs Can Continue Coding at a Scale-Up

As a startup CTO, much of your identity is likely tied to being a hands-on technologist and coder. But as your company grows, it can take time to stay as involved in the day-to-day development work. The key is finding ways to remain technical even when managing a larger team.

Delegate Management Responsibilities to Direct Reports

One approach is to delegate more management responsibilities to direct reports so you can dedicate time to coding and technical projects. Handoff infrastructure oversight, product road mapping, and team mentorship to managers below you. This frees up your schedule to work directly on crucial features or upgrades. Empowering your team with additional leadership opportunities lets you stay closer to the technology.

Set Aside Time to Code

You should also set aside dedicated hours for coding each week, such as blocking off time on your calendar for technical work. Spending 5-10 hours a week writing code can help you stay up-to-speed on your tech stack and make meaningful contributions. You might work on high-impact projects that leverage your expertise or tackle technical debt to keep your skills sharp. The key is to protect this time from meetings and administrative tasks.

Choose Strategic Coding Projects

Some CTOs can remain highly technical by choosing strategic coding projects to focus on directly. For example, you might lead the architecture and development of new product features that require complex technical work. Or spearhead technical upgrades that span multiple teams, like migrating to a new database system or cloud infrastructure. Leading high-visibility, technically challenging projects allows you to code at a high level while still guiding your team’s technical vision.

While a startup CTO’s role inevitably expands into leadership and management, staying closely connected to hands-on technology is possible. By delegating responsibilities, allocating dedicated coding time, and choosing impactful projects to work on directly, CTOs can continue developing their technical skills even as they scale their teams into much larger organizations. With the right balance of management and technical work, CTOs can have the best of both worlds as leaders of fast-growing startups.

The Leadership Challenge: Developing Management Skills for the Transition

As a startup CTO, much of your time is spent hands-on building products and leading a small team. But as your company grows, developing strong leadership and management skills is crucial to oversee a larger technology organization effectively.

Hiring and Managing Junior Team Members

One of the biggest challenges is hiring and managing more junior team members. CTOs must mentor newer hires and delegate responsibilities to help them grow. They must provide feedback, set clear expectations, and evaluate performance to build a robust and sustainable team. The key is finding the right balance of guidance and autonomy. Micromanaging will only slow progress, while too little oversight can lead to poor work quality or missed deadlines.

Communication at Scale

Communication also becomes increasingly important at scale. CTOs must convey a technology vision to executives, investors, and customers. They need to translate complex technical details for non-technical stakeholders. And they have to share key updates, priorities, and company news with a larger team. It’s a good idea for CTOs to overcommunicate by sharing updates in multiple formats like email, meetings, and internal newsletters.

Conflict Resolution

Conflict resolution is another crucial skill. As teams expand, the potential for disagreements and power struggles rises. An effective CTO will anticipate these issues and step in to facilitate productive conversations. They should listen to all sides, find compromise and common ground, and make objective decisions in the company’s best interest. Unresolved conflict can seriously impact productivity, innovation, and company culture.

For startups, a lack of leadership during periods of growth can be damaging. Sometimes, the technology organization can become siloed or slow to execute without guidance. Team members may need more strategic direction or support. And if CTOs can effectively convey priorities to executives, technology may be aligned with business goals which can put the company at a competitive disadvantage. The key takeaway is that startup CTOs must actively work to develop management abilities that match the increasing scale and complexity of their role. With the right leadership, a startup’s technology team will thrive during the transition. But without it, growth can easily lead to chaos.

Fractional CTOs: A Solution for Startups Not Yet Ready for a Full-Time CTO

As startups scale their technology, they often reach a point where a full-time CTO becomes necessary to lead the growing team and set strategic direction. However, some startups may still need to be ready to commit to hiring a CTO in a long-term leadership role. A “fractional” or part-time CTO can be an effective solution in these cases.

Strategic Technology Consultants

Fractional CTOs act as strategic technology consultants, providing guidance and management for a startup’s tech team without requiring a long-term salary commitment. Startups can leverage the expertise of an experienced CTO on a part-time basis, paying only for the hours they need. This allows the startup to scale their technology strategically without the risk of hiring a full-time CTO prematurely.

Affordable Access to Specialized Leadership Talent

According to research from MBO Partners, the use of fractional executives, including CTOs, has been rising steadily over the past decade. Fractional CTOs allow startups to affordably access specialized leadership talent that may otherwise be out of reach. They also provide flexibility, as startups can quickly scale or reduce the fractional CTO’s hours based on their needs.

Developing Technology Roadmap

For a startup, a fractional CTO plays a similar role to a full-time CTO but on a part-time basis. They help develop the technology roadmap, manage key hires, oversee development processes, and ensure the tech stack supports business goals. However, fractional CTOs typically commit to a limited number of monthly hours, such as 20 to 60. They maintain other clients in addition to the startup.

Cons of Fractional Executive

Some critics argue that fractional executives can provide a different focus and long-term vision than full-time leaders. However, for startups still defining their technology needs, a fractional CTO’s objectivity and experience with various companies can be an asset. They can help a startup establish best practices and make strategic choices to support future growth.

Fractional CTOs provide an alternative for startups scaling their technology but need more time to be ready for the full commitment of hiring a CTO. With the guidance of a fractional leader, startups can gain C-level technology expertise without risking a premature or unnecessary long-term hire. As their needs evolve, startups can determine if and when the time is right to hire a full-time CTO.

Making the Tough Decisions: How to Determine if You Should Step Aside

As a startup CTO, one of the hardest decisions you may face is recognizing when to transition your role to a new leader. After pouring your passion into building a company’s technology from the ground up, stepping aside can be difficult. However, several signs indicate it may be the right choice for the business.

Lack of Technical Expertise

A lack of technical expertise for the company’s current needs is one sign a CTO’s role should evolve. As startups scale, their technology and product needs become increasingly complex. If your technical skills need to be improved to guide the team, bringing on a new CTO with the necessary experience may make sense. Similarly, if you desire a reduced role or different position, that inner calling is worth listening to. Forcing yourself to continue in a job you’ve outgrown will only lead to a lack of fulfillment and potentially poor leadership.

Plateauing Business Growth

Plateauing business growth can also indicate it’s time for a change in technology leadership. While a startup is rapidly gaining new customers and expanding, a hands-on CTO is ideal. But if growth slows or stagnates, a CTO with experience leading larger organizations may be better equipped to help the company progress to the next stage. If you’ve taken the company as far as you can, the best way to support continued success may be stepping aside for someone with the skills to revive momentum.

Have a Conversation with Company Executives

Having an honest conversation with company executives about transitioning the CTO role is key. Explain your reasons for believing a leadership change is necessary, whether they be a lack of technical expertise, a desire for a new role, or plateauing growth. Discuss options like hiring a new full-time CTO, bringing on a fractional CTO, or promoting a technical leader from within the team. With open communication, you can work together to determine the best path forward for the company’s technology and your career.

While difficult, stepping aside as CTO when the time is right is a mark of a true leader. It demonstrates your ability to recognize the company’s needs and your willingness to put business success over ego. By evolving your role at the appropriate juncture, you open the door for new leadership that can take the startup to the next level.

Evolving Successfully: How Startup CTOs Can Thrive at a Scale-Up

For a startup CTO, evolving into a leader of a larger scale-up company is a challenging but rewarding process. With the right mindset and strategies, startup CTOs can make this transition successfully and thrive in a role that allows them to have a bigger impact.

CTOs Must be Flexible

The most important mindset for a scaling CTO is flexibility. The role of the CTO will inevitably change as the company grows, requiring an openness to redefining responsibilities and priorities. CTOs must be willing to delegate more, focus on high-level strategy, and trust their team to handle day-to-day technical work. While stepping back from hands-on coding can be difficult, it is the only way to lead a technology organization at scale sustainably.

Build Strong Leadership Skills

Developing strong leadership and management skills is also key. CTOs accustomed to startups often have limited experience managing larger teams, hiring senior talent, and resolving conflicts. Investing in leadership development, mentorship, and executive coaching can help CTOs strengthen these skills, which are essential for directing a scale-up technology team.

Stay Connected with Innovative Trends

While the role evolves, CTOs should aim to stay closely connected to technology. Setting aside time for strategic or high-impact technical work, reviewing architecture plans, and participating in hackathons or coding sprints are ways to remain hands-on as a leader. This technical credibility will allow CTOs to set technology vision and make complex engineering decisions more effectively.

Empower the Tech Team

Finally, building a strong, empowered team is critical for success at scale. CTOs must hire experienced managers and senior technical leaders, then delegate authority to them. With a leadership team in place, CTOs can focus on higher-level goals confident their organization is in good hands. This shared leadership model also provides continuity if a CTO decides to step aside.

CTOs can Successfully Transition by Managing Their Skills & Time

For startup CTOs, evolving into a leader of a larger technology organization is challenging yet rewarding. By embracing a flexible mindset, developing management skills, staying technically connected, and building a strong team, startup CTOs can successfully navigate this transition and thrive at the helm of a scale-up company. With the right strategies and support, CTOs can evolve their role and have an even greater impact as their company grows.


In the transition from a hands-on to a more managerial role, what might be some practical strategies for CTOs to continue influencing the technical direction of the company?

In the transition phase, CTOs can continue to influence the company’s technical direction by getting involved in key product decisions and setting up technology task forces. They can dedicate some time each week to reviewing product developments or leading select technology projects. By doing so, they maintain their hands-on involvement without overwhelming their schedule. Communication is paramount here – they should frequently discuss their vision with the technical team to help inspire and direct the team’s efforts.

How can startups strategically use the concept of fractional CTOs to bridge the gap during scaling phases?

Startups can strategically use fractional CTOs during scaling phases to access top technical leadership without a permanent commitment. Fractional CTOs allow startups to flexibly infuse their teams with expert knowledge and industry-level expertise. For example, a startup might hire a fractional CTO when they’re expanding into a new technology area, making a key technical pivot, or are scaling up but not yet ready for a full-time CTO. This provides the startup time to stabilize while considering long-term leadership choices.

Could you provide examples of certain signs a CTO should look for when considering if it's time to step aside and hand over the reins to a new leadership?

Some signs a CTO might look for when considering stepping down include feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the operation, sensing critical gaps in their own skills or knowledge, noting a lack of fit with the company’s evolving needs, and recognizing the company’s growth has stagnated. Another sign could be the CTO’s subjective dissatisfaction in their role, which might signal it’s time to explore other opportunities. In each case, the key is to be honest with oneself and place the company’s needs over personal ambitions or ego.

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