What Does a Startup CTO Do? What Are Their Responsibilities?

The Chief Technology Officer (CTO) is a relatively new title. Back in 2009, President Obama named Aneesh Chopra as the very first CTO of the United States. At the time, many people responded by saying, “What’s a CTO?”

Chopra was tasked with applying new technology to stimulate job growth, tighten security and do more with broadband on a grand scale, but those are exactly the kinds of tasks that might be expected from a CTO at a startup.

Different stages of the startup life cycle require different skillsets from the CTO. Here’s an introduction to what matters most for the CTO in the earliest stages of business growth.

Startup CTOs Accelerate Growth

Of primary importance to a CTO at a startup is helping the business put on some weight. Growth is essential to survival, so the CTO has to start there. Frequently, startups are led initially by non-technical founders, or technical founders who must switch their focus to finance, so the CTO must take on the role of a lead engineer.

Other common tasks include testing out software and hardware for better team collaboration or getting hands-on experience cleaning up code before an app goes into production. More generally, here are some to the top goals of startup CTOS in the world today.

Top 7 Goals for a Startup CTO

1. Design Top-Level Tech Strategy

All companies are in the software business to some extent, because modern businesses can’t compete without advanced applications, either for customers or running in the back office. The CTO collaborates with the C-suite to set goals based on existing technology or innovations that need to happen.

2. Manage a Growth Roadmap

Unlike some of the other C’s in the C-suite, the CTO’s job spans from strategy to tactics. The CTO takes company goals and then maps out the practical steps and methodologies along the path leading to those goals. From finance and operations to development and user experience, the CTO has to find or create the optimal tools so that information workers can do their jobs.

3. Be the Public Face of Tech

Establishing brand identity is crucial at this stage of a startup’s life. The CTO must embody the brand’s technical identity at conferences, in stories for the media, on social media, etc. The message the CTO should convey will be tied closely to brand messaging but include ideals like innovation and creativity.

4. Coach and Mentor Tech Talent

Even in a startup’s earliest stages, the ideal CTO devotes time to mentoring their own replacement. For the company to grow, the CTO will need to develop new leaders who can be trusted to complete or delegate critical functions. The CTO must have technical and engineering expertise to evaluate the abilities of those who are chosen for mentorships.

5. Draw on the Abilities of a Deep Network

No one can go it alone. CTOs should come to the table with established networks in development, new ventures, data management, design and market research, among other significant fields. There isn’t time to develop these kinds of connections on the fly in a time-crunched atmosphere of a startup.

6. Establish a Backbone of Tech Culture

When the startup gets to be a large enterprise, there will very like be several internal employee subcultures. The seeds of that ecosystem start with the CTO and the culture they establish within technical teams. Hiring and firing is an art that encompasses both rapid assessment of achievement potentials and accurate projections of social integration with existing teams. The CTO must be knowledgeable enough in technical skills to recognize talent and wise enough to foster collaboration.

7. Discuss Feasibility at the Micro and Macro Levels at the Same Time

What is possible for a startup is very different from what’s possible at the corporate world. Many good CTOs aren’t able to make that transition. The best CTO for a startup should have experience in doing feasibility studies on a napkin at midnight, assessing what buyers are willing to pay for and extrapolating what’s possible given technology under development at the moment.

Advice on How to Onboard the Perfect CTO

Once you know what your CTO is going to do, you can work backwards from there to identify skills that the perfect candidate would need. For example, managing a growth roadmap takes project management experience. Mentoring technical talent takes experience in top languages and platforms like Java, C++, NoSQL databases or Docker containers on Hadoop.

To attract and retain that kind of talent takes a commitment to cutting-edge innovation. You’ll need to offer a highly competitive salary or convince them that stock is a better, which isn’t always easy for an unknown startup team without a strong record of achievement.


The startup CTO is the link between strategy and tactics. A good CTO looks at business goals and translates them into projects, with advice on specific technology that the team will need to deploy to get there. At the earliest stages, the CTO will be part of the IT/development team, assuring the quality of services and proactively steering the company around avoidable risks. Finding the CTO isn’t easy, but this pivotal position can make all the difference in the world in the success of a fledgling startup.