Inside the job of a Chief Technology Officer

By BrainStation June 20, 2019

In most modern companies, the role of a Chief Technology Officer — or CTO — is an increasingly crucial part of the executive team.

It’s a job that’s heavily focused on the high-level scientific and technological issues within an organization, and typically oversees the entire technology or engineering teams.

But day-to-day, what’s this top-level job really about?

To find out, BrainStation spoke to Sean Kennedy, the CTO at #paid, which offers an influencer marketing platform for brands like Starbucks, Toyota, and H&M.

Sean Kennedy, #paid

Sean Kennedy, CTO at #paid

BrainStation: What’s a typical day like in your role as CTO?

Kennedy: I find that while each day is often very different, the high-level objectives that I’m trying to accomplish remain constant.

Ultimately, my aim is to foster the kind of environment that allows our team to deliver a world-class product to our clients. In order to achieve this goal, there are many elements that need to be aligned, including setting a high bar for hiring and reaching a diverse set of candidates, keeping team members happy and engaged in sufficiently challenging work, and making sure the team is informed on overall direction and how their individual contributions are pushing the company forward.

To that end, I’ve found certain practices quite useful such as: daily stand-ups, growth-focused one-on-ones, and making myself available to mentor and answer questions.

At the size of company I’ve typically worked at, a good portion of my time is spent leading by example in how to develop high-quality software. I absolutely love to code and fill my time with that as much as possible.

What are the key skills and experience a CTO needs?

I believe the exact key requirements would vary quite dramatically depending on the company. That being said, there are some common themes.

Technical expertise and leadership skills are important, but they are two different sets of skills that need to be cultivated individually. Not all technical experts make good leaders, and certainly, not all leaders make good technical experts.

Furthermore, a CTO would typically have to weigh business objectives carefully against the need for technical due diligence. For example, a brand new startup may want to create a minimum viable product as fast as possible — at the risk of accumulating technical debt — while a well-established company may want to optimize for technical robustness where bugs or mistakes can be incredibly costly — at the risk of moving slowly.

Understanding and translating such needs into an actionable plan is important in order to generate the highest value output given limited time.

What challenges do you typically face?

The challenges I’ve come across came in many shapes and forms: technical issues in intermediary networking hops, finding high-quality candidates, among other challenges.

The ever-present challenge I deal with is how best to utilize my time. I schedule important tasks/meetings in my calendar far ahead of time, but things don’t always go according to plan and I have to adapt my schedule accordingly.

With time being such an important resource, I have to continually ask myself the question, “Is this the best use of my time right now?”

Staying abreast of relevant trends and reading articles by technology thought leaders is important in order to make informed decisions. However, spending hours in the office reading articles is not the most effective use of my time and so instead I do that during my commute or at home.

What is your advice for aspiring future CTOs on how to prepare and land this type of job?

If I had to choose only one piece of advice it would be to develop a growth mindset. The moment you stop learning is the moment you start the decline towards becoming obsolete — this certainly seems true in the technology industry.

It’s important to note that this does not imply you have to constantly chase after whatever emerging tech is the new flavor of the month. The idea is to equip yourself with a range of tools and understand how and when to apply them — especially the trade-offs involved because there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

These are metaphorical tools, they don’t have to be a particular tech framework or stack of some kind.

Read some books, find others who share a similar growth mindset, and learn from others who have walked this path before you.

I am incredibly grateful and fortunate to have had mentors who helped shape my philosophies and were kind enough to share their time and knowledge with me. I appreciate those who tell me when and why I’m wrong. I’d never been able to improve without their help.

This interview has been edited and condensed.