Are you ready to be a CTO?

A strong CTO candidate needs to demonstrate more than technical skills. Follow these 5 stepping stones to show that you’re prepared

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You know you want to be a CTO someday, and you know you have the intellect and the drive to get there, but you’re not sure if your résumé will reflect all of the crucial building blocks to make you a slam dunk CTO candidate. You’re not alone.

As someone who was in C-level roles at three VC-backed startups earlier in my career—and who now works at a go-to tech recruiting firm, placing hundreds of elite technology leaders at some of the world’s most innovative companies—I can provide you with a sound perspective on the specific skills and experience required to be an appealing candidate for that next big CTO position. Read on to gather all of the stepping stones you’ll need to build your path to becoming a CTO.

Prove you have leadership and mentorship skills

Show that you have a coaching tree. To do that, you will have to find and mentor people, both internally at your firm and externally, out in the industry at large. For internal mentorship, can you show that you helped individual contributors become managers? Can you show that you taught directors to be VPs? For external proof, can you show that you have built connections outside of companies?

For instance, you could advise incubators or labs, speak at meetups or campuses, judge hackathons, etc. Recruiting is difficult. You will need to show prospective employers and exec teams that you have succeeded in all of these areas, to prove that you have the skills and the network necessary to build a world class team.

Show that you worked under mentors to develop technical excellence

Think ahead to your dream job and seek out mentors who will help you turn that dream into a reality. If you aspire to play a CTO role at a large, multi-national company, seek out jobs that will enable you to show that you’ve worked under mentors with a large-company pedigree and learned how to tackle complex, large-scale, global challenges. No one runs before they can crawl. You need to show that you learned the relevant skills somewhere along the way.

With this focus on being an apprentice, don’t try to over-title too early. Take time to build out each block you’ll need. It’s often better to be mentored, as the “number two” or “number three” at a big company, rather than taking a high title at a small company that no one has heard of. As the big fish in a small pond, you’ll miss the opportunity to learn—and gain valuable experience and expertise—from the best of the best.

Showcase organizational skills and influence

Simply put, you’re going to need people skills. So much of what companies now expect a CTO to do is to lead by influence, not with an iron fist. So, ask yourself whether you’ve amassed the softer communications skills and emotional quotient that are crucial for influencing and driving change inside an organization.

You may wonder why this building block is necessary, but trust me—it’s paramount. You may not always have product and sales under your purview as CTO. That means you’ll need to show that you can bring change through influence and communicate well with tangential teams, even once or twice removed from you. Your résumé should show how you were able to direct strategy to drive outcomes through the respective heads of those teams.

Be able to speak in terms that matter to customers

Put yourself in other people’s shoes, even if they don’t fit you well. All of the technologies, products, or services you create will be used by someone, and a CTO needs to be singularly focused on the needs and desires of that user. Without the customers, there’s no need for the technology, and no need for your company to exist. CEOs know this, and CTOs need to understand it as well.

Too often, CTOs make the mistake of assuming they always know what is best for the customer instead of asking the customer for their input, and then following up to ensure needs were met. The CTO’s role is about more than just building an elegant infrastructure. Show that you took the time to work directly with customers and users to understand their needs and problems, how you solved those problems for them, and how you communicated with them to ensure their experience with your product or service was favorable.

With all of this said—stay technical

Though the above building blocks have focused on showcasing leadership skills, mentorship, and communication prowess (and maybe a little bit of humility), it goes without saying that you also need to show your technical skills. At the end of the day, the T in CTO stands for Technical, and this is the deep expertise companies are seeking when they turn to you. Don’t hold back when you showcase the education, skills, and expertise you’ve amassed over the years.

Every successful CTO has gathered these and other stepping stones along their path to greatness. By planning ahead, you’ll be well prepared to gather all of the skills and experience you will need. The key is to be purposeful. Create a path that allows you to gather most of the big stones you think you’ll need, but also be on the lookout for experiences and opportunities you didn’t plan on, because they can be equally useful.

If career moves don’t always go as anticipated (because let’s be honest, we all have missteps along the way), brush yourself off after failures and survey your situation. The stones in the rubble around you may not be pretty, but they’re just as strong as the others in your path and will also serve you well in your quest to build a top-notch CTO résumé. It can take many years to gather all of the skills and experiences necessary to be a strong CTO. Just keep these crucial stepping stones in mind, and you’ll be sure to arrive at your destination.

Eric Larson is a senior partner at Riviera Partners, a leading retained search firm specializing in placements of executive leadership in engineering, product, and design. Eric has more than 25 years of experience building public, private equity, and venture-backed technology companies.

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