How do I become a CTO?

CHIEF TECHNOLOGY OFFICER: A ROLE GUIDE

A frequent question I get that I want to help answer in the next few blog posts is “How do I become a CTO? or Chief Technology Officer.

I used to give a few simple answers before: a) Focus on building a great technology profile -e.g. GitHub profile, speaking engagements, etc., b) Network as much as you can with potential founders and c) Learn as much as you can about the business elements of your industry, especially customer trends.

I realized these were good enough for a 30 minute career counseling call, but not very valuable for people who want to plan their career for the long term.

Now that I have more time, I thought I would take a data driven approach to answering this question.

There are great articles on what a CTO does, so I am not going to answer that question.

Instead lets focus only on what it takes to become a CTO.

There are about 780K people with the title “CTO” on LinkedIn and roughly 159K with the title “Chief Technology Officer”.

Filtering them by size of company, indicates 11% are in large organizations (> 10K employees), and over 75% are in small (<100 employees). Many of the large organizations have multiple CTOs (e.g. Microsoft has 38 people in my network alone with a CTO title). Many of them are CTO of a specific business unit, or industry vertical function.

Segmenting by location, 38% of CTOs are in the USA, 27% in Europe and the rest in other locations.

There are 29 Million software developers in the world.

So roughly 1 in 30 software developers could become a CTO.

In my LinkedIn network, I have 1st degree connections with 541 colleagues with the title of either CTO or Chief Technology Officer.

I spend a few hours learning to deploy a LinkedIn scraper. It took me a lot longer than I thought it would, but that’s another story.

I scraped my network for 7 parameters:

  1. Name: E.g. Mukund Mohan
  2. Title: E.g. Chief Technology Officer
  3. Location: E.g. Greater Seattle Area
  4. Company / Organization: BuildDirect
  5. All organizations they worked at before, title and tenure in each organization. E.g. Director of Engineering, Microsoft, 5 years
  6. Education: E.g. Bachelor of Engineering and years at school (If available)
  7. Skills: e.g. product management, startups, etc.

I put this data into an CSV file just to view it in an easy way for me to visually review it.

Three patterns (or archetypes) emerge:

The career technologist (52% of my network)

This individual has over 16.5 years of average experience after graduating, working at 4.6 organizations with an average tenure of 6 years in each.

This indicates that the most frequent way to become a CTO is to have tenure as a developer and grow in organization(s) over time. There were CTOs with over 27 years of experience in my network, and the lowest in this segment had 14 years of experience as a technical leader.

Some examples: Kamal Hathi, Joseph Sirosh and Marianna Tessel.

The startup technologist (35% of my network)

This individual has about 10.2 years of experience after graduating, working at 3.1 organizations with an average tenure of 3 years in each.

This indicates the 2nd most likely way you can become a CTO is to start your own company (likely with a co founder). I tend to have more startup CTOs in my network than others do, so this may be due to my background and experience.

Some examples: Tom Harel, Aravind Bala and Farah Ali.

The fast break upstart (6% of my network)

This individual has 8.7 years of experience after graduating, working at 2.3 organizations with an average tenure of 4.6 years.

This archetype is unique and hard to find because they were at the right place at the right time. They joined a fast growing company (Google, Facebook, etc.) at the early stage and grew with the organization quickly enough to then get a role elsewhere as a CTO.

Some examples: Gaurav Oberoi, Palak Dalal

The rest (7% of my network)

The rest are a motley crew of technologists with long tenure, but I am not able to put them into a specific bucket. They have done several roles, including software development, product management, etc.

In the next few posts I will address questions such as

How do I direct my career to become one of the 30 people who can become a CTO?

How can I put a plan together to achieve my goal to become a CTO?

Where do I look for CTO positions?

What compensation and equity should a CTO at a startup expect?