Dave Antrobus has 10 Tips for First-Time Chief Technology Officers

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Here’s how you can thrive in your new role.

One of the biggest career moves a web developer like Dave Antrobus can make is the jump to becoming a chief technology officer (CTO). Although only the most successful developers typically make this move, the amount of development work CTOs get to do is minimal. With a host of new management responsibilities to contend with, becoming a CTO can feel like a very different job – especially when it comes to fostering a technological approach that complements the company’s business strategy, developing project management capability, and perfecting your leadership skills. This can be especially demanding for new CTOs who haven’t come from a business or management background.

That’s why Dave Antrobus, CTO of the award-winning business group Inc & Co and the capital investment agency Fresh Thinking Group, has shared 10 strategies to help first-time CTOs succeed in their roles.

1.    Get to Know Your Responsibilities as a CTO

Every company has different requirements for its CTO, meaning that no two CTOs do the same job. Therefore, it’s important that you know exactly what’s expected of you. Discuss the details and requirements of your role with the board and then confirm these in your own words. Make sure you get these details in writing, too. Dave Antrobus notes that it can be helpful to join the board in a meeting to discuss your progress after a certain timeframe (perhaps three months). This way, you can keep management up to date with your progress, raise any difficulties, and receive feedback.

2.    Tell the Board if You Have Too Many Responsibilities

As a CTO, you can expect many questions and queries to come your way. You’ll need to advise on and complete a high volume of tasks, and you’ll need to manage these responsibilities carefully. If you do find yourself unable to complete everything on the job list, let the board know straight away. You might be able to postpone some tasks. Where this could be possible, prepare a timeline with proposed deadlines and suggest your alternative solution to the board.

On the other hand, the board might help you balance your workload by giving you the go-ahead to hire more people. If budget allows, it may be possible to hire a direct assistant or additional staff who complement your skillset. For example, a human resources expert can be an invaluable hire for a CTO who has too many management duties. Meanwhile, a financial expert can be a great hire for a CTO who spends a lot of time checking and approving salaries. You may be able to hire an external candidate or promote someone internally.

Alternatively, if you’re lacking developers, you could build an in-house team, contract freelancers, or hire a software house. There are all sorts of ways to fill this need.

3.    Work Out How to Prioritise Your To-Do List

As tasks build up, you’ll also need to learn how to prioritise your to-do list. It should get easier to work out what’s most important and what can wait over time. However, as a starting point, avoid burying yourself in one non-urgent, time-consuming task when you have a long to-do list of pressing matters to contend with.

Dave Antrobus also recommends delegating tasks to make your life easier. You need to know everything about the company’s services, technologies, and tools. This means you don’t have time to micromanage others. While you’re working on the big picture, you can trust developers to work on coding tasks.

4.    Speak Up When You Know Something Won’t Work

As a CTO, if you know something won’t work, it’s important to say so. Members of the board will likely be strong characters. So, if you don’t speak up, they’ll make decisions without your input. This can leave you managing tasks and leading projects against your better judgement. Carrying out some research can make it much easier to hold your ground here. If you can support your point of view with evidence and facts, you’re more likely to get people on board with your perspective and respond effectively to counterarguments.

If you’re worried about causing conflict by speaking up, it can be a good idea to suggest that decision makers sleep on the matter. Postponing the meeting can give everyone time to think the problem through and brainstorm potential solutions.

5.    Allow Yourself Time to Think

Though the role of the CTO can vary hugely, the position is always about strategy. This means you need time to plan. Don’t let others book your calendar out every day. You need time to react to real-time project changes and plan according to emergencies.

On top of this, keeping up to date with advances in technology takes time, and no one can do this research for you. Don’t underestimate the importance of making time for this research. A lack of technical knowledge can lead to many negative implications, including technical debt. And no CTO wants to tell their developers to rewrite a whole system because they didn’t do enough research beforehand.

6.    Draw Up – and Approve – a Financial Vision for the Company

With some research, you can draw up a financial vision for the company and plan the steps to get there. Be prepared to invest time into this process; it can take several years to reach a vision, especially when that vision involves accelerating technologies, gaining competitive advantage, consistently evolving methodologies, and adapting to meet market requirements. That’s not to say you can’t celebrate milestones along the way though.

Once you’ve envisaged the company’s future and mapped steps towards this, you’ll need to present your strategies to the board. Make sure your plan offers a solid route towards increased profits and a strong reputation for advanced technology. Your vision should also suit the company’s business strategy.

7.    Leave Coding to the Developers

As a CTO, programming likely formed the core of your role for many years. But once your development skills get you to the top, it’s time to let go of coding. Many CTOs find this difficult, but the sooner you leave the programming to the developers, the sooner you can start growing the business.

If you don’t leave the coding to the developers, you’ll put them in a difficult position. For example, if you provide them with code that includes an error or is inconsistent, they’re unlikely to feel comfortable correcting your mistake. Developers also won’t appreciate micro-managing. Dave Antrobus suggests that if you want to get involved in your developers’ code it can be a good idea to arrange consultations or progress checks with them. Meanwhile, you can spend the time you gain researching the company’s next technological developments.

8.    Uphold Company-Wide Communications

Communication is key to your role as a CTO, and it’s up to you to let everyone in the company know what’s going on with technology projects (not just the developers). The company’s sales team, marketers, and graphic designers all need to know about technical updates so they don’t give the wrong information to clients and leads or make errors in marketing materials. Your updates should explain what the technology projects are and how, why, when, and where they will take place.

You can ensure effective communication by:

  • Hosting regular project presentations with Q&A sessions. Developers can share their progress in these sessions.
  • Providing technical training for the company’s non-technical teams.
  • Arranging for commercial departments like sales and marketing to feed back to the developers. These departments can explain how they need to promote the company and what this means for the project at large.
  • Maintaining a project database with all the relevant information that anyone in the company can access.

Note: remember that while upholding communication is important, you can expect to handle confidential information at times, too.

9.    Take Care of Yourself – Your Mood Affects Others

Once you’re a CTO, you can expect your mood to impact more people than when you were a developer. As a leader, you become a public figure in the office. Many people will take note of how you handle pressure, watch your reactions (verbal and non-verbal), and adjust their behaviour accordingly. For example, employees can read a simple question like ‘will you meet the deadline?’ in different ways. This question could come across as ‘I like the idea, but do you have time?’ or ‘There’s no way we’ll make the deadline if you run with this idea’. Your body language and tone of voice can undermine someone’s confidence or make their day without you even realising.

As the CTO’s mood can dictate the office atmosphere, it’s vital that you take care of yourself. Dave Antrobus explains that if you’re unhappy in your role, your unhappiness will translate to others, who will feel your discouragement. So, delegate the tasks that you can’t do to someone who is enthusiastic about taking on more responsibility. And take note of the things that make you feel your best. When you take care of yourself, you can take care of the company.

10.  Complete a Management Course

If you don’t come from a management background, you might struggle with soft business skills as a first-time CTO. If so, you could hire a consultant to provide management training for you and anyone else who would benefit. While some training may take a few days, you might find a longer-term mentor particularly beneficial. Either way, investing in management training can spotlight areas for improvement and help you effectively manage your team much faster than you could if you were figuring out your leadership strategy alone.

Strong management skills are essential to your role as a CTO. Think back to the CTOs you worked for when you were a developer. When did they help you grow as a developer? Did they ever neglect to help you? Now, you’re responsible for supporting developers. They’ll look up to you for guidance, so, if you need help, make sure you access it.

Succeeding in Your New Role as a CTO

Making the shift from developer to CTO isn’t easy, but it should be rewarding. Hopefully, Dave Antrobus’ strategies will help you enrich your technological expertise with business awareness. When you can cultivate a healthy environment for you, your developers, and the wider company, you’ll reap the rewards in the long run.

About Dave Antrobus

As the CTO of Inc & Co and Fresh Thinking Group, Dave Antrobus drives these business groups’ financial planning and mentors several teams of web developers. His consultancy-driven approach helps these IT teams consistently build their skills so they can conceptualise and develop advanced technology solutions. Dave Antrobus adopts Agile and Scrum methodologies to help both Fresh Thinking Group and Inc & Co achieve optimised client outcomes, streamline operations, uphold open communication, and ensure efficiency.