What does the CTO in a startup do? Roles and responsibilities

What does the CTO in a startup do? Roles and responsibilities
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Michel Krieger from Instagram, Werner Hans Peter Vogels from Amazon, and David Hansson, the Ruby on Rail creator… What do they all have in common? Right, they are notable CTOs who have managed to change the world with their progressive tech ideas. 

In 2020, any company's success is based on advanced technologies. They are used to decrease ongoing spending, optimize processes, analyze market trends, and forecast profits. The role of CTO (Chief Technology Officer) is to help the company keep its competitive edge and stay technologically sustainable. 

Chief Technical Officer duties belong to the technical side of the business. Depending on the scope of the company, its marketing aims, and operations field, the CTO may have various responsibilities unlike other C-level executives (for example, CEO or CFO). 

What Does the CTO Do?

So who is a CTO (a Chief Technology Officer or Head of Engineering)? 

The position is considered to be one of the vaguest C-level roles as the CTO’s responsibilities depend on a number of factors; startup area, business processing style, the number of in-house and outsourced workers, and many more. There is no certainty concerning salaries either. In 2020, the average salary for a CTO position globally is $159,920 per year. However, blue chip companies like IBM and Boston Dynamics offer an annual wage of around $200,000

You’ll also find it difficult to find a common startup CTO job description. The only thing you can be sure of is that a Chief Technology Officer’s main duty is to enable a company to reach its financial and marketing goals using an innovative tech approach.

The modern business world is digitalized and technology-related so the qualified CTOs of 2020 are in high demand.

They may be hired for two main purposes — to take care of internal business operation processes or to develop innovative products. At the same time, the CTO is the public face of the tech department. They may represent their companies at conferences, trade and other events that strengthen the corporate brand image.

Below, we have listed the most typical CTO roles and responsibilities: 

Platform selection and technical design

You may be surprised, but the CTO will be involved, (either directly or indirectly) in all technical projects. The CTO is responsible for maintaining the strategic focus of the project and is in charge of turning a concept into reality. In small startups, the Founder executes the function of CTO and in huge companies, the CTO manages several development teams including those serving corporate tech needs.

The CTO may be called a product manager with the primary goal of managing a tech team and making business critical tech decisions, such as tech design planning, product architecture layout and development platform selection. 

A Chief Technology Officer job description could also include some practical aspects — if a tech team doesn’t have the knowledge or resources to complete a task, then it is down to the CTO to find a solution. It’s no wonder they have to obtain a wide variety of tech and ‘soft’ skills.

CTO as a service is one more approach that is gaining momentum in 2020. Just as engineering task execution, tech supervision, and management have been outsourced to save project budget costs. 

MVP and DevOps issues

An MVP (Minimum Viable Product) is a product with only the essential features created to check marketing hypotheses and analyze real user feedback. There is a huge difference between Chief Technology Officer roles and responsibilities in a small business and a large corporation regarding MVP development. 

While the CTO of a multi-national enterprise is levels of management away from daily engineering, the CTO in a small company needs to handle tech tasks concerning first product iteration. Tech process backup also falls to the CTO, even if they have a huge budget and can hire team members to execute MVP-related tasks. 

As a rule, it is impossible to hire all the required specialists immediately, which means that the CTO has to regularly fill the gaps with their skills and time. 

As you can see, CTO responsibilities are a bit blurred. DevOps (development and operations) engineering is also the battlefield of a CTO. They have to build the tech side of the product from scratch including features, server interactions, scripts, deployment stage maps, and SSHs. 

Engineer hunting and team growth management 

CTO startup responsibilities include hiring IT specialists, data scientists, and engineers. In 2020, the task is believed to be becoming more difficult for startups, as the job market is getting tighter, as digital companies continue to grow and require more employees. Tech specialists prefer to specialize in niche areas, whereas startups need universal soldiers. 

Another Chief Technology Officer role is to hire a team (with or without the help of HR managers) and then conduct or supervise the onboarding process for chosen candidates. 

In larger companies, a CTO job description could include organizing training activities for the tech department, self-education support, and team supervision. That is the reason why event management and mentoring experience, as well as a wide professional contact base, is a distinct advantage on a CTO’s CV.


What does the CTO do besides managing the tech department? Cybersecurity is one more issue they are responsible for. Security gaps may occur in corporate databases, within web sites, or other digital tools that the team uses. Products that are under development by the company may also require security algorithms to keep user data private and encrypted. 

The CTO is in charge of security procedure development, algorithm development, conducting emergency audits, and much more. Other engineers must work according to security rules set by the CTO. 

QA and product testing

There is another more distinct difference between startup CTO job descriptions and corporate CTO obligations. Startups rarely have a separate quality assurance department, which means that product testing should be split between developers and other team members. The Chief Technical Officer’s responsibilities are to decide who is in charge of the debug process. And when a tech bug is found it is usually relayed to the CTO, who then needs to decide how to solve the issue. The hands-on job may also include recording instructions for typical bug fixing. 

In mid-sized companies, the CTO must develop a system of testing upcoming updates and tools to monitor the progress. Bearing in mind that the CTO is a person who sits somewhere between tech and the other business areas, most of the questions regarding QA management and tech budgets are usually directed to them. 

Growth roadmap and innovations 

What does a Chief Technical Officer do? In simple terms, a CTO thinks about the future, maps it, and then implements the step by step plan. On the project discovery stage, the CTO builds a growth roadmap, taking into consideration corporate goals and strategies. The CTO works with various aspects of a digital product — development, UX, security, budgets, operational processes, and team coordination. 

Besides MVP deployment, the CTO is in charge of planning the next product version and tech updates. Usually, they fulfill budgeting roles regarding MVP rebuilding, study user feedback, cooperating with data scientists and filling resource gaps. A specialist of that kind needs to be acquainted with data processing and data storage security. 

How CTO Responsibilities Change with Company Growth

As you’ve noticed, the CTO’s duties need to be flexible even within one company. The bigger the company, the more management levels there are between a head of engineering and the actual hands-on tech task execution. 

But what is the primary responsibility of the CTO? The Chief Technical Officer takes care of corporate commercial goals using a tech team. In some sense, a person in this position oversees the future and shapes it in a positive technical way. The CTO plans product development, calculates budgets, manages the team, deploys the product, and sets out working processes when considering product updates. 

If a small startup CTO works well, the company may grow quickly and the role of CTO will change significantly. What should they be prepared for during the different stages of company growth, learn here: 

  • Pre-seed stage
    no tech specialists except CTO 

    We are at pre-seed stage here, we are speaking about startups that are trying to launch their first product. In such circumstances, the CTO is a practical engineer that should be ready to build the digital product architecture without third-party help and remains the main specialist to implement it. Data security, QA management, and deployment issues are also their responsibility. 

    What does a Chief Technical Officer do besides daily programming tasks? In the early stages, the head of engineering validates the technical complexity of the product idea and suggests tech approaches to make it real. 

  • Startup
    5—10 specialists in the tech department 

    The role of CTO includes software engineer selection and hiring, their onboarding, training, and management. 

    On the startup stage (as we’ve written above), the head of engineering evaluates the business tasks and ideas and comes up with a tech stack and budget suggestions. They also create a list of specialists that are required to develop the project within deadlines and to execute immediate company tasks. 

    CTO works in a team as an experienced developer and helps colleagues to solve problematic issues.

    After an MVP has been deployed, the CTO focuses on making the product better. The idea is to plan new features, scale teams to cover growing product tech support needs and develop a scalable optimized product infrastructure to raise corporate efficiency. The CTO is still in charge of these tasks, while the role turns into a hybrid of tech visionary, HR specialist, and team manager instead of being a highly-qualified developer.

  • Growth (Consolidation) stage 
    50—100 specialists in the tech department 

    In the case of a startups consolidation stage, Chief Technical Officer duties involve overseeing several development teams, track progress, design and implement workflow principles, and take care of company-wide security issues. As usual, mid-sized companies tend to assign some product management tasks to the CTO as well. 

    The software product general vision management is a major duty of the CTO regarding the department’s core tasks. However, specific tasks such as coding or QA may be executed by other team members, or sub-teams. 

    The head of engineering also defines the application and other digital products architecture and keeps an eye on the latest tech updates, to implement industry-leading new approaches within the company. The CTO is the lead product architect and system administrator. 

  • Expansion stage
    more than 100 specialists in the tech department 

    A startup CTO job description concerning the expansion stage of a well established startup will specify the ability to manage large, or multiple departments, corporation level cutting-edge technology implementation, Corporate representation experience (taking part in conferences and other professional events), educational session management and much more. 

    Here, the CTO is a senior executive, which is several management levels away from hand-on tasks execution. The ability to communicate, make accurate far-sighted decisions, oversee team and department progress, plan new tech competitive advantage development, and be the face of tech — is what a perfect CTO shall look like. 

    CTO tasks in huge companies are influenced by the general corporate operating style and values.

    A CTO is involved in every project implementation stage. For more information read our article App development Process: From Idea to App Maintenance

What Skills Does A Tech Startup CTO Need?

It is believed that the main characteristic of a CTO’s roles and responsibilities is that they have experience in both operational management and software development areas. One is no more important than the other. At the same time, a CTO needs to be flexible enough to adapt to the needs of an expanding startup. 

As you may find from the paragraph above, the bigger the company is, the more soft skills and management experience become valuable for a CTO. Here, we would like to list some of the must-have skills required for the position.

Negotiation skills

A CTO has to lead the development department, approve new candidates to work on the project, as well as encourage them to study new technologies and implement new approaches. At the same time, the CTO interfaces with tech workers, HR departments, other C-level executives, and (sometimes) clients. 

Creativity and trouble solving skills

The CTO is the one who solves issues. If a problem occurs, the CTO is the first person to be informed about it. On the one hand, the head of engineering is expected to develop and launch operating process automation solutions (bug fixing, task execution, tech support). On the other, they are also experts that work on technical issues without external support. 

Sense of leadership and mentorship 

Chief Technology Officer roles and responsibilities include ‘selling’to the company brand new strategic developmentments, empowered by new technologies. The ability to inspire people to achieve more, persuade them that your vision is realistic and has certain advantages — all these skills are signs of a good CTO. The head of engineering also shall know how to ‘home-grow’, procure or outsource talent. 

Constant self-education

CTOs in a mid-sized and small companies are usually the most skilled tech specialist in a team. This rule changes if we are speaking about a large enterprise, where the CTO has more management-related tasks and fewer practical engineering-related duties. 

However, there‘s something in common in both options. The CTO is the best technical visionary in a company. To remain in service they need to study new practices, discover technologies, and be comfortable in a high-level professional environment. 

Advanced tech skills 

Digital product architecture building, MVP and API development and testing, corporate tech system administration, DevOps skills — all these things you may find reading a CTO job description in various companies. That skill set will be required in the case of your company depending on its size and tech specifics. 

Strategic thinking

The CTO leads and plans tech stack. They choose a development approach, workflow philosophy, and plan or check project budgets together with the assigned project manager. 

Also, the CTO has duties at the corporate level — they define the corporate tech strategy and the development vector. That’s why a CTO’s ability to see the whole picture on various levels — project, department, and corporate — is so important. 


As you can see, a CTO responsibilities are hardly definable in a couple of lines. The dilemma is that the head of engineering is a position that falls somewhere between technical execution and operational management. 

A CTO is expected to have advanced soft and hard skills (Computer Science area is the most preferable).

So what does a CTO do? The person in that role provides engineering leadership in all aspects of business, balancing the needs of employees’, users’ (or customers’), and stakeholders’ interests. Regarding company specifics, a CTO’s duties will vary. Tech strategy building, security issues, team member mentorship, quality checks, new tech trends discovery and implementation, feedback study, MVP launching, and finding effective solutions for on-going tech difficulties are just the most common examples. 

If you want to know by what criteria you should choose a CTO for your company, evaluate the current and future tech needs of your business. If you plan to apply for a CTO position in any company, prepare a CV with a focus on technical expertise and operational process management skills. 


How do I find a CTO for a startup?

Hackathons, conferences, meetups, summits are all great opportunities to discover a potential CTO who would be a great asset for your company. Also there is an endless list of platforms which are dedicated to finding technical professionals such as a CTO.

When should I hire a CTO?

There are different factors that influence whether or not it is time for your company to bring in a chief technology officer. But If you can afford it, hire a hands-on CTO from the first day. You need someone within the team who can make key technical decisions.

When should I hire a CTO?

There are different factors that influence whether or not it is time for your company to bring in a chief technology officer. But If you can afford it, hire a hands-on CTO from the first day. You need someone within the team who can make key technical decisions.

What is the role of a CTO in a startup?

The CTO will be in charge of all company technology and technological resources by establishing the organization's technology vision, strategies, and plans for growth.

What makes a good CTO?

A great CTO is a hybrid of business and technical talent. A CTO should be able to evaluate multiple technologies and identify those that are the best fit for the business.