Finding a CTO with the right chops

Over the last few years, I have had multiple friends and colleagues tell me how difficult it is to find capable software and technology architects to run the technical aspects of their businesses. While I have taken their word, Suja Viswesan’s lecture from LinkedIn—along with the other lectures and research I have performed while in this course—opened my understanding as to why. As Suja talked about the complexity of LinkedIn’s People You May Know algorithm, followed up by the diagrams of LinkedIn’s databases and systems used to manage their data, I began to realize how difficult a Chief Technology Officer’s (CTO) role might be.

Why is it difficult?

The reason it is so difficult to find a good CTO–both for high-growth startups and large organizations–is that the skill set needed to do so is complex and multifaceted. I found, in my research, that there are three main skillsets needed for a CTO to develop and manage the technology architecture in a high-growth IT organization. These three things are 1) deep technical understanding, 2) sufficient cognitive complexity and 3) the ability to develop the technical competence throughout the organization.

Deep Technical Understanding

To understand the needed technical competencies, I searched through Indeed and SHRM’s CTO job descriptions [1] [2]. While doing this, some of the common skills and requirements I found include:

  • Responsibilities
    • Guide technology agenda
    • Understand the technology landscape including the latest technology trends
    • Guide technology investment the of organization
    • Architect technology and systems design; consolidate platforms as needed
    • Mentor, coach, and train technical staff
    • Ensure a clear technology strategy and vision
    • Evaluate and ensure technology performance
    • Track, analyze and monitor technology performance metrics
    • Strong communication skills
  • Qualifications
    • BS in IT field
    • Preferred MBA
    • 7-10 years of engineering and IT experience
    • Strong MVC framework experience
    • Successful track record
    • Leadership experience

Cognitive Complexity

Stratified Systems Theory of Requisite Organization evaluates the complexity of different responsibilities and identifies the required abilities needed to successfully perform in each responsibility. Elliot Jaques outlines the various stratum and the cognitive capabilities needed in each stratum [3]. From these stratum guidelines, LinkedIn’s CTO would likely need to operate in a Stratum V or VI level to be able to manage the complexity of LinkedIn’s technical systems. Good startup and high-growth technology architects will likely need to be able to operate in at-least a stratum III level, and possibly up to stratum V or VI. They must be able to understand and manage many disparate technologies and systems to ensure they connect and operate seamlessly.

Developing Organizational Technical Expertise

Ideal CTOs not only have to have deep technical skills and sufficient cognitive complexity, but they also have the ability to manage and build the technical competence of their organization. According to the research of Paul Thompson, Gene Dalton, and Korn Ferry Institute, this means that a good technology architect must be contributing with stage III or stage IV behaviors [4]. In technical organizations with complex systems—or that will require complex systems as they grow—the organization cannot afford to have a CTO that operates as an individual contributor. These complex systems require many individual and managerial contributors that must be led by a competent CTO that can ensure their contributions achieve the correct technology outcomes.

I now better understand why finding the right technology architect is so difficult. They must have the rare combination of deep individual technical skills, sufficient cognitive capability, and the ability to guide the technical development of the organization.