What Makes A Great CTO Great?

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One of my biggest mistakes ever was adding “John” as my co-founder and VP Engineering/CTO. Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that John wasn’t that great of an engineer, and he failed as our CTO because his engineering skills weren’t that good.

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John’s engineering skills were as good as I thought they’d be, maybe better than I’d thought they’d be. John came highly recommended from one my other co-founder, “Jim”.

Jim and I had worked at Maxim Integrated Products together, and Jim had worked with John. And, even though I had never worked with John, it was easy for me to do reference checks on him.

“Genius Engineer!”

“John’s a guru1”

“You got him! Wow!”

That’s what came back from the people that knew John. And, they weren’t wrong. John was a brilliant engineer, yet he failed completely as our CTO.


Hiring a great engineer does NOT mean you’ve hired a great VP Engineering/CTO.


Let’s dissect why John, a guru level, brilliant engineer, failed as our CTO. John had the basics of the role down.

John could recruit high quality engineers to join our company. That’s critical because you’re going to need high quality engineers to build your company

So, John had the basics, the table stakes of being a great VP Engineering/CTO, down. However, as I said, he failed miserably. I’ll get back to this in a bit.


A great VP Engineering/CTO must know how to build and manage your engineering organization.


John’s eventual replacement, Jeroen, was also a guru-level engineer. And, just like John, Jeroen recruited world class engineers into our company.

Jeroen also was a great engineering manager. It was something I never got to see John do because he was gone within six months of joining the company.

However, Jeroen knew how to manage an engineering team. If you think this is easy, it’s not because you’re managing a bunch of creatives.

You have to gain the respect of your team which Jeroen did. And, you have to instill discipline with just the right touch because if you push too hard on creatives, they’ll walk.

Jeroen had all of this down. Yet, there was one more thing that Jeroen did that only a world-class VP Engineering/CTO can do: 


A truly great VP Engineering/CTO must also have great business skills.


How lucky could I be? Not only was I working with someone I could trust to run engineering, I had a partner that I could bounce any business idea, problem, or challenge we had off. That’s what you want.

Jeroen’s business skills were the differentiator between him and John. John didn’t have any business skills. None.

In a startup, especially an early stage startup, you need your co-founders, especially your VP Engineering, to have excellent business skills. The reason is you need you and your co-founders moving in the same direction, and that’s really hard to do if one of your co-founders doesn’t get what your company is doing.

I’m not saying you can’t have disagreements between you and your co-founders. You can have disagreements. However, you’re in trouble if you and your co-founder(s) are fighting all the time.

I was lucky that I found Jeroen to replace John. Myself, Jeroen and my other co-founders were all in lock-step. We all were fanatical about our vision.

You recruit the best of the best when you’re in synch with your world class VP Engineering/CTO.. Now you have the wind at your back when you’re working with fellow fanatics and true believers. It allows you to move much faster, so you get a lot done.


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