Home > Uncategorized > Advice for a new CTO in 2010

Advice for a new CTO in 2010

Three weeks ago, I was very happy to provide a professional reference for my former colleague.    “N” called me last night and shared the good news.   He accepted an offer to join as a CTO in a software company that just crossed a very important milestone: for the first time, the annual revenues will exceed $10M.

Although “N” has been clearly the best candidate for the position, a lingering concern remained in his mind.  “What if I don’t succeed?”

“N” is one of the smartest people I know.   But being smart is just one essential ingredient of success.  “N” asked for my advice and I was very happy to offer my thoughts.   This blog entry is much more than just a recollection of our conversation. I want “N” to succeed as well as every other CTO who will be asked to create market-leading products and fuel revenue growth in 2010.

First – take a deep breath and commit to ‘observe only’ plan for the first 30 days:

1.  Where are the products vs competition:  behind, competitive, or ahead?

– If behind:  you will most likely deal with a backlog of delayed functionality, sales team wanting to see more frequent product releases, and potentially growing backlog of defects.  Your team will be under stress.

Items to consider:

– Build good working relationships with leaders of Sales, Marketing, Customer Support, and Professionals Services organizations.  Acknowledge the problem.   They will understand – that’s why you have been hired.   Prioritize most important functionality / releases and develop a plan – with dates cast in stone – to deliver.  Your team will be under even more stress but do not be concerned.  This is your chance to learn what every team member is capable of under the pressure.  Many will disagree with you.  Ignore the noise.

– If competitive:  in the community of equal products, how products are positioned and sold is the key to success.   Learn the products.  When there is a chance – get on the road.  Sell, sell, sell – and learn first hand what the market and customers want.

– If ahead:  what a great position to be in …

Second – evaluate your team and how everyone works:

– Within the first week, sit down with every direct report and clearly describe your expectations.  Do not leave anything to chance.  This includes “I expect every meeting to start on time.   10:00am means you are in the room, ready to talk, with all supporting materials and presentations ready to be shared.  It does not mean arriving at 10:00am and then proceeding to get a cup of coffee”.

– Schedule one-on-one meetings with every team member.   Show your personal side.

– Assess talent, skills, promotional potential.

– Evaluate how the team conducts design activities, prepares engineering estimates, runs release management activities.   This is obviously not an exhaustive list.  Look for absence of rigor and quality.  Also look for evidence of “just enough to get the job done”.  These are danger signs that will very quickly lead you to the root cause.

Third – ask a question, “can I deliver what’s needed with what I have”

– Confirm quarterly and any other, additional product development goals

– Evaluate engineering capacity and historical product development velocity

– Get a good handle on the budget, open requisitions, recruiting process

– If you need a different budget to succeed, this is the time to ask for it

Finally – make changes:

– It’s important for you to be respected as a leader of the product development organization.  Everyone knows new leadership will bring changes.

– This is your chance to make the necessary changes based on what you learned.  Some changes may not be popular.  Other changes may mean more work.  Again – ignore the noise.

– Carefully monitor how the organization responds.  This will always be true: many people will see you and your leadership as a breath of fresh air.  Others will see you as a threat.   Give them a chance to adjust.  But at the same time, allow everyone to have a voice, even if they don’t agree.  The decision may still be yours to make.  After the arguments have been heard and a balanced decision has been made, everyone – and I mean everyone – should be working hard to support the decision.    Do not allow the few to derail hard work of many.   Prepare a transition plan and gracefully ask them to leave.   Your trusted recruiter should already be already working for you.

Best wishes for success in 2010!

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Spondon Dey
    December 29, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    This and many of your articles have given me inspiration and insight in 2009. Keep up the great thought leadership in 2010 and beyond. Wishing great success to you!!
    Spondon Dey

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