Follow the Leader


Good leadership is fundamental to the success of any organization. But what makes a good CTO, Head of Technology, or VP of Engineering and how do you choose the right candidate?

The demands on the Head of Technology will certainly vary based on the type of business and the size of the company. If you’re running a business where your primary product is either Software (for example Microsoft or Apple) or a networked service (think Google, Spotify, eBay, etc.) then the Head of Technology is most likely one of the founders.

But what if your primary business is not strictly technical, but you have a significant footprint in Software Engineers, System Administrators, Network Engineers, Business Analysts, and other technical personnel. Companies that come to mind are: insurance companies, hedge funds, big banks, media companies, large retailers, and big consulting firms. These are the kind of businesses that were perhaps originally started as brick and mortar businesses but over time have relied more and more on technology to sell their products and heavily rely on technology to manage their day-to-day operations.

For many of these companies, good internal capabilities are now a critical aspect of doing business, and they can no longer just rely on vendor products but must build up their internal technology and software engineering practices in order to effectively compete with their rivals. In addition they will have to deal with difficult technical challenges such as data security and find ways to avoid disruption by other market participants.

Identifying the right candidate to lead such organizations from a technology perspective is a non-trivial matter and ultimate success largely depends on a clear articulation and prioritization of the candidate’s background and capabilities.

These companies often make the mistake of making knowledge of their business a top priority for their leaders in technology. A company that is in the business of selling, say widgets, mistakenly presumes that a good CTO must be an expert of the widget market, know about the technical and operational aspects of selling widgets, and have a long history of working with widgets.

While having a solid understanding of the markets in which the business operates is a valuable area of knowledge, it should not be the top priority.

What then should be the key requirement for a leader in technology in these companies?

The answer is: Technology!

It sounds rather simplistic but is THE fundamental difference between a company like Amazon ($145B Market Cap) and a company like Barnes and Noble ($1.4B Market Cap).

So far I’ve only provided detail at the level of a Gartner report or CTO magazine. Let’s drill down one level and break-down “Technology” and elaborate on what kinds of skills we’re talking about.

A solid technical leader should have a history of expertise around various key building blocks of Computer Science, such as: Data

Breaking down Data:

  • I am talking about bits and bytes all the way down to the 1’s and 0’s
  • How is data stored?
  • How is data retrieved?
  • How can data be stored consistently?
  • How can data be stored reliably?
  • How can data be made available to other geographies?
  • How can large amounts of data be accessed quickly?
  • How can fast moving data be analyzed?

Other high-level areas of expertise that come to mind are: Algorithms, Networking, Operating Systems, Encryption, and Software Engineering.

A current CTO who manages the activities hundreds if not thousands of people can probably not be expected to be looking at 1’s and 0’s on a daily basis, so how can one demonstrate a “history of expertise” in these areas?

A history of expertise can be demonstrated by a prospective candidate by showing that they have repeatedly been able to use the fundamental building blocks of Computer Science mentioned above to build or enhance applications/systems/infrastructures that have made a tangible and measurable contributions to the bottom lines of their companies.

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