Balancing The Many Hats Of A Startup CEO

Illustration by Amelia Austin (c)

Startup CEOs wear many hats that they take on and off as company priorities ebb and flow. One moment they are the CFO and raising capital and the next they are the Head of Product and making critical roadmap decisions. As a quarter-end nears, they become heads of Sales and as the company expands (or contracts) they’re running HR. There can be tremendous stress when a CEO tries to wear too many hats at once or struggles to decide which to wear, which to remove, and which to hand off to someone on their team – if such a team exists! The startup CEOs I coach have used following framework I’ve created to help them determine which hats to where when. While this article is largely focused on startup CEOs, framework can also be an effective tool for other organizational leaders.

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The Hats

The most common array of hats that a CEO may wear at any given time fall into the categories below, but no CEO – early stage or not – can split their time and attention so perfectly as the chart denotes.

Before deciding which hats to wear and when, a startup CEO should first identify with what their hats (categories) are in their current role. Using the visual above, here’s how I define these very common categories:

Product (What & When): This is what the company produces. It includes customer discovery, design, building, shipping and support. It also includes prioritization and tradeoff decision making for features, new products and services. Many startup CEOs are product people and this can often be one of the hardest hats to take off completely – if ever. Note that being a product visionary and/or a great coder or designer does not necessarily mean one is a great Product Manager – knowing how to make tradeoffs, analyze customer requirements or develop a product roadmap. Be sure to fully explore this “hat” before deciding it’s one to wear or take off.

Culture & Process (How): I was inspired recently by a coaching client of mine who combined these two into one category. If the culture doesn’t work, then the processes won’t work either. Creating high performing teams goes well beyond what workflows, policies and procedures are in place. It is how the team communicates, operates and evolves as a living organism. Never underestimate the value of focusing on culture with process starting from day one! Some CEOs are natural culture builders and system thinkers, but if this is not a strong suit, it’s definitely a hat that should be worn by an in-house culture expert or by someone with natural team-building/program management skills.

Strategy (Where, Why & When): Determining the company’s True North, setting direction for at least the next 12-18 months and making critical decisions about the company’s mission for things like fundraising, revenue growth and human capital. This is also about defining and communicating why the company is doing what it does which is as important as where it is going. Employees and investors/board members all perform better when there is clarity on why the company is moving in a particular direction. This hat is quite commonly on the CEO’s head forever.

Talent & Development (Who & How): A company will not succeed or grow without hyper focus on the growth of their employees. It is vital to the success and stability of an organization to establish best in class hiring practices and programs as well as to develop each person’s skills as individuals and leaders. As companies grow, CEOs must be thoughtful about where to focus hiring efforts, how to provide incentives to retain top performers and how to grow those with high potential. In addition, as companies grow, there will always be tradeoffs on when to promote from within, when to hire more experienced talent and when it’s time for some team members to move on. CEOs often wear this hat more often than others, but many have COOs or strong HR leaders on their teams who wear this hat permanently.

Back Office (How): A company can have the best product and team in the world and mess things up royally because the back office hat was on the wrong individual’s head. This is mostly finance (accounting, receivables, payroll, etc.) and legal (employee contracts, partnerships, etc.). I’m amazed at how many CEOs wear this hat for too long. It’s ok early stage, but let the professionals do this work once the company hits product market fit and is beginning to operate at scale. Some CEOs are former CFOs who are perfectly capable of leading back office teams, but data shows that CFOs often lack “Outside-in” thinking (a strong mega-trend and customer focus)” and lack the creative and inspirational leadership qualities of a great CEO.

Marketing, Sales & Business Development (What, Why & When): Brand identity, target audiences, community development, filling the pipeline, closing deals and creating strategic partnerships. These tasks often require CEO leadership – especially early stage. Some CEOs are very marketing/sales oriented which can derive huge benefits for the business as long as there are capable leaders on the team wearing other hats. However, many CEOs are not marketers and, like the Back Office hat, should leave that work to the experts.

The Have-to-dos, Want-to-dos & Good-ats

Rather than being stressed out trying to balance all hats at once, it is best to focus on wearing 1-2 hats at a time. These 1-2 hats are those that HAVE to be done. It’s great when these prioritized hats also happen to be hats a leader wants to wear and require skills that they believe they are good at, but that is not always the case – especially for early stage CEOs who often need to do a lot of things that they may be good at, but don’t necessarily want to do. Similarly, there can be things a CEO is good at and wants to do, but the business doesn’t require them to do it. Finally, there are times when something has to be done, the CEO wants to do it, but they lack the skill to do it well (self-professed or not!). Here are a few examples:

  • Finances – CEOs are good at doing the accounting for the business and it has to be done, but usually very willing to give that up as soon as they can hire a head of finance. They don’t want to do it!
  • Product/Technology – No matter how much a founder/CEO wants to design or code – and they may be good at it – there is a point as a company scales that CEOs have to take off this hat. They are no longer “have to-dos” at their level. Note, I have seen a number of CEO-Founders take their CEO hats off to dive back into the product – they not only want to do it, it’s their passion!
  • Hiring – Inexperienced CEOs managing people and leading teams for the first time both have to hire and want to hire, but are often unskilled when it comes to sourcing, interviewing and managing the onboarding experience. This is a skill they are not good at.

If a company is well funded and/or profitable, the CEO can usually move swiftly to swap or delegate hats with the support of their leadership team or investors. They may hire more seasoned leaders or team members and/or offer training for those who need to develop their skills. However, for the fledgling teams who can’t fund these improvements, it is even more important to make hard choices about which hats to wear…even if that means letting some things slide or not executing perfectly. The tradeoffs can be hard, but the focus of this exercise can allow a leader to move quickly from one to the next so things don’t slide for too long. In fact, it is extremely common for CEOs to become so paralyzed about which hats to wear that the performance of the company is suffering more than if they had just picked 1-2 hats to focus on and move forward.

To get started on assessing “have to-dos (HTDs), want to-dos (WTDs) and good-ats (GAs)”, I recommend a two-pronged approach:

  1. Using the categories or hats identified, rate the HTDs, WTDs and GAs today and what the HTDs should be in the future. This exercise requires self reflection and a large dose of humility.
  2. Define what measurable goals must be achieved to remove a particular hat OR issues that need to be resolved to put on a particular hat. Include an action plan (with timeline) that ensures goals can be met. 

Using a framework like the chart below, begin to outline and rate the categories, 1-5. 1=low (this is a hat not being worn, not wanting to do, or something one is not good at ) and 5=high (absolutely something that has to be done, there’s strong passion to do it, self-assesses* that it is a strong skill).

*Self assessed skills are different than how others perceive one’s abilities. If unsure, do a 360-feedback survey with your team or seek outside help!

An optional third step is to color code each row to visually identify hats that are critical to wear (red), not urgent but important (yellow) and the hats that are satisfactory at this time (green).

I’ve created two charts below – before and after – as examples of how a CEO of a post series A startup with modest revenue might perform this exercise:

BEFORE

In the above example, the rows in green show where the CEO is satisfied with their current involvement (“hat wearing”). The rows in yellow are places where they need to adjust their involvement, but not urgent. The two red rows are urgent and where the CEO wants to put their focus. 

  • In the case of Culture & Process, the CEO only rates their hat wearing as a “2” and there are serious issues in the organization to address. The CEO has identified what is going on in the “HTD Achieved/Needed When…” column which requires them to put on the hat and what actions they will take to ensure they are wearing that hat at least at a “4” (HTD Future). 
  • In the second case, the CEO knows the Back Office work is important, but does not want to do back office work, nor do they feel they are good at it. Thus, they are working to remove the Back Office hat and reducing their involvement from a 4 to a 1. In this case, the bullets in the “HTD Achieved/Needed When…” column clarify what will be happening when the CEO has officially taken off that hat, moving it to a “1” (HTD Future).

Identifying what hats need wearing – and how firmly to wear/remove said hats – is step one. Taking actions to add or remove the hat(s) is step two. In the case of ramping up on Culture & Process noted above, the CEO would kick off the action items and set a timeframe of when they would be able to remove that hat. They would then update the chart to be clear what will need to be in place for them to remove/loosen that hat. Similar with Back Office work, once the key actions are achieved, the chart is updated to reflect that the Back Office hat no longer needs wearing. The updated chart may look like this:

AFTER

With the updates above, the CEO has removed their Back Office hat and is firmly wearing the Culture & Process hat. They can now continue to focus on the Culture & Process hat until it can be taken off (“1”). They can also decide which of the two yellow rows – Product and Talent & Development – they want to focus on next while the other areas of the business require less of their attention. 

Most CEOs who follow this process use months or quarters to time-box focused efforts and update the charts, but it all depends on how one works and how fast change is happening inside the organization. Choose what works best for you!

No Recipe Is Perfect

The exercise above is one way of thinking about how to balance many hats a CEO – or any leader of a large team – might wear. There’s no perfect algorithm and while one might aim to only wear a maximum of two hats at a time, there will be times when many hats will have to be worn. I’ve also seen CEOs who find that once they’ve mastered a new skill, the hat they didn’t want to wear is actually one that they enjoyed wearing more than they expected.

There are of course sometimes when CEOs realize that no matter how much training, coaching or mentoring they get, they are not able to wear any of the hats well or they just don’t enjoy wearing them. This is often when the company is achieving a level of scale that requires more experience than the CEO’s own professional experience. Some CEOs recognize this and work with their boards to find a successor, but sometimes this can be a decision taken out of a CEO’s hands when their board/investors decide the business can’t wait for the CEO to grow into the role. I’ve also seen many CEOs who find a great partner (President or COO) to run the business with them and augment some of the skills they have yet to or want to master. This not only keeps the company on the rails, but gives the CEO a role model to learn from along the way.

Conclusion

CEOs should be performing a regular assessment of where their time is focused, identify measurable results when changes are made and what actions to take to get there. Even a simple visual like the Before and After on the balance wheels below can kick start the process. Identifying what the current focus areas are (before) and where should they be (after).

No matter how a leader decides to assess and prioritize their hats, leaning into the balancing process will likely mitigate stress and potential burnout. What processes have you seen that are effective towards balancing hat wearing? Please share in the comments! Meanwhile, if you are thinking about trying this exercise, I have created a google sheet template for anyone to use to start this process. Feel free to save a copy of the template for yourself and dig in!

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NOTE: The balancing hat illustration at the top of this article was created by my daughter, Amelia Austin and is copy-written.

The Fundamentals of Roadmapping

We are in an era of Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs); tools companies use to track and measure their progress and ensure they are on track to reach strategic goals. In scaling startups, CEOs and co-founders have mixed feelings about delegating tasks they once owned to new layers of management. Some tasks, like perhaps managing the books to a new head of finance, they are eager to let go of, and some, like product decisions, can cause a lot of angst. In these times of transition, it’s not uncommon to implement OKRs/KPIs as a way to get comfortable with handing off these responsibilities. As management layers are added, there is a natural fear of no longer being close to the detail, of wondering whether a team can execute as well without a founder/top leader engaged in the day-to-day. I often hear CEOs/Founders of scaling companies ask how they will know if things are working if they are no longer in the weeds. These leaders want to trust their team and worry about micromanaging, but they also want accountability and the ability to track progress. 

Measuring performance and holding leaders accountable is indeed important, but what’s often missing is the holistic view of where the company is going and an organization-wide understanding of how it will reach its goals. Before setting those metrics, leaders must be clear about the True North for the business – the compass of your company’s identity and growth direction – and set a near-term vision with a roadmap to get there.

The 30K Foot View

Anyone that asks what your company’s 3-5 year roadmap looks like is clueless about how businesses – at any stage – really work. With constant innovation, new market entrants and potential black swans like a global pandemic, the best a leader can do is set a 12-18 month strategic plan that is directionally aligned with the company’s true north. That plan should be broken down by quarter with the assumption that the degree of confidence in achieving goals within each quarter will decline over time. You cannot predict the future, but you can build within a set of assumptions. Assumptions should be articulated for each goal as a means to establish confidence levels.  

Here’s a framework for thinking about the high level view of your company’s roadmap:

roadmapframework

High-level Roadmap Framework (c) Julia Austin 2020

The true north (or mission) statement should be at the highest level, a guiding principle of the impact your company is committed to making for the long term. When I was CTO at DigitalOcean, we coined the true north statement “To Empower Developers To Build Great Software”. This gave us focus on our target persona (developers) and latitude to evolve as needed to achieve that mission. While we were (and they still are) a cloud company, this statement said no matter how we evolved, markets change, etc. we would remain focused on what’s needed for developers to build great software. Google’s statement is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Again, the focus is on the impact – the world’s information being accessible – not how the company delivers on that mission.

The 12-18 month vision statement should be a clear focus on near-term impacts. This may be to achieve a certain level of market adoption or to have a core set of offerings viewed as table stakes for the target audience. It could be the launch of a new product or service or a major financial metric like reaching Free Cash Flow.

Quarterly OKRs/KPIs should be brief (no more than 2-3 major goals), achievable, but with some amount of stretch. In other words, if you were using the traffic light rating system (red, yellow, green) not all of them will be “green” per quarter. More info here. Beware of over-adjusting OKRs every quarter – while they will definitely evolve, especially if the process is new to an organization, there can be a temptation to focus on changing the objectives vs. adjusting KPIs or accepting that the goals simply can’t be met for other reasons (poor leadership, systemic issues, market changes) which should be addressed outside of the rating process.

Expect each team across the organization to cascade their operational roadmaps from these strategic foci. Operational roadmaps should identify key initiatives and milestones. Some milestones may be a sum of parts (as in the Engineering roadmap below) and some may be more linear and timeline driven as the Operations and GTM roadmaps show below. Of course, each initiative can be broken down even further per team (see next section); that’s up to each team to decide how to manage from there. However this high level format is the right level of detail for broader communication across the organization and perhaps with your board or even your customers.

strategic_roadmap

Strategic Roadmap Example (c) Julia Austin 2020

The Process

I encourage a six-quarter rolling approach whereby each quarter the leadership team:

  • rates and reflects on last quarter’s results;
  • reviews upcoming quarterly goals;
  • adjusts assumptions and factors in any new information (market shifts, product/revenue changes, etc.) for the next 6th quarter;
  • communicates the updated company plan across the organization; and 
  • has each team create a tactical roadmap that lines up with the quarterly goals.

Below are representations of tactical roadmaps I’ve seen used in two very different organizations. In the first example, the product team and key stakeholders (sales, support and finance leads) review current priorities and drag and drop efforts according to their complexity and priority relative to company goals. They use a product like Mural to collaborate electronically (both when in-person and remotely). In the second example, a simple spreadsheet is used, projects are t-shirt sized using standard scrum methods, and there are links to each project’s details (in apps like Jira or Trello) for more information about relevant epics and user stories. PMs meet with engineering leaders each month to review and adjust as needed. In all cases, the details of each major initiative includes tie-backs to OKRs/KPIs. If they can’t be tied back, and measured, they should not be on the roadmap!

matrix_roadmap

Example One

 

spreadsheet_roadmap

Example Two

Considerations For Very Early Stage Companies – Pre-Product Market Fit

  • If your company is very early stage, expect to pivot the vision and the roadmap a lot as you learn and grow. Create guiding principles for when and how you would adjust a True North and/or Vision Statement. What factors must be true? What assumptions are you making about the market and/or target persona that may prove wrong or different than what was expected? Will you lean into these new findings and shift the direction of the business or keep testing those assumptions in different ways to learn more? Even the earliest staged companies should have a true north as they get started.
  • Avoid peanut buttering! One of my favorite terms, this suggests spreading many things across a broad surface vs. being focused on a few key initiatives. It is scary – especially for early stage companies – to commit to only 1-2 things when it’s so unclear whether either/both will be a success and there are so many other things to try. However, by spreading limited resources across too many things, it’s more likely nothing of substance will get done, or things will move too slowly OR each thing will be done with poor quality while possibly burning out your team. Pick those 1-2 focus areas and set time-boxed milestones that will drive next steps or a change in direction. For example, “we must reach 20-30% conversion rate with the current MVP over the next two quarters or shift to the other product idea.” Commit to these milestones and agree how close you’d need to be to reaching that goal to keep moving forward vs. cutting bait and moving on.

Considerations For Companies With Product Market Fit

  • Appoint a roadmap owner who can oversee the process across the organization. This is typically a senior product manager/head of product or Chief of Staff who is empowered to drive decisions and prioritize based on the 12-18 month vision. This role may be supported by a program/project manager who maintains the details in whichever tool or platform you use (e.g., updates the spreadsheet, inputs changes into Trello, etc.)
  • Be mindful of how much time your team is spending on roadmapping and the measurement process. If it’s taking more than a few hours per quarter to discuss, update and communicate the roadmap and OKRs, it’s costing your company far too much time and money. This process supports productivity, it doesn’t become the work itself! If it’s taking up too much time, it’s likely the goals and measures are far too detailed and/or there are too many people involved in the process.
  • Establish Rules of Engagement (ROE) for times when an opportunity or challenge may disrupt the roadmap. For example, what size/nature of a new customer opportunity would disrupt the roadmap? Can it only be for initiatives that were already on the roadmap, but further out? Will the sales team have points they can “spend” per quarter to reprioritize something? What about a major bug/performance issue? How bad would they have to be to disrupt the current plan? Once the ROE are set, these too should be managed by the roadmap owner. If the ROE are not adhered to, they’re useless, so only have a few and keep them simple. E.g., unless a new customer could grow revenue by x% and what they need is already on the roadmap, we won’t do it. OR if a bug is creating more than x% churn or denying service to a critical mass of customers, it’ll be fixed in accordance with the roadmap.
  • Prioritize the backlog and tech debt as part of the process. These are just as important as new features and the longer they are put off, the harder they will be to schedule and get done. Set aside anywhere from 3-10% of resource allocation dedicated to these efforts. It largely depends on how severe issues are, whether upcoming roadmap initiatives have dependencies on these issues and/or how long they have been festering. It can be useful to “age up” backlog/debt items to raise their priority.
  • A few finer points on this topic:
    • If a new request or critical issue bumps something else, always communicate the tradeoff(s) made and the positive or negative impact they will have on OKRs/KPIs.
    • Developers hate roadmap thrash! So try not to disrupt it too often.
    • Remember, for projects already underway, a reprioritization is not a 1:1 swap – there will be a J-curve in productivity each time a team has to stop something, start something new, and return to the old project later. 

Conclusion

There is no one best way to do the roadmapping process. How you lead, the type of product you build, organizational structure and culture all come into play to determine what will work best for your company. Having a roadmap process will improve the prioritization process and create alignment among teams, will provide transparency across the organization and should give leaders (including your board) the right level of visibility to ensure the work is getting done. Don’t create a process just for the sake of process or implement OKRs just because someone told you that’s what you’re supposed to do. Be thoughtful and implement whatever process works best for your company.

Do you have other suggestions on how to run a great roadmapping process? Please share in the comments!

A Pandemic’s Impact on Remote Work

covid19With the COVID-19 virus continuing to spread, there is a potential for many teams and whole companies to have to quickly shift gears from working in HQs and globally distributed offices to working from home. This will impact the operations of both the companies handling this rapid scale in remote work and companies unaccustomed to a remote work culture. It will also impact personal and family life at a broader scale; creating new demand for services and products that cater to at-home workers.

  • Remote-friendly software tools like ZoomSlackHangouts, etc. must not only ensure their products can function at scale with lumpy spikes in both adoption and usage, but should also ensure their teams can handle the stress on the company — from sales and user onboarding to customer support and billing. Teams need to prepare for growth they’ve never experienced. This is a chance for these companies to shine, but they could also easily implode (for anyone buying up their stock!).
  • If a company has not had a remote-friendly culture to-date, the shift will a big change — and could be sudden without time to prepare. HR and operations teams should start to get up to speed on trends and best practices for remote work, stat. This article has a great list of reads on the topic. Share with your managers and start talking about how you might operate if you have to shift to remote work for an extended period of time.
  • Assuming the dust settles and we will get past this impending pandemic, once you’ve opened the door to adopting a remote work culture, it may be hard to go back. My prediction is that there will be a higher demand for more remote-friendly software solutions, more workers looking for remote roles, more need for co-working spaces outside of urban settings and a lot of empty space in large office parks and urban towers.
  • In terms of personal and family lives, I could imagine even more demand for home delivery services, build-out of home offices and demand for in-home care givers. Those who have not traditionally worked from home will quickly realize that it’s not as simple as sitting at your laptop on your couch for the day. The new remote workforce will need private spaces away from family and life’s distractions (laundry, dishes, the dog!) in order to focus. They’ll need alternatives to daycare and possibly even need work spaces for children who cannot attend their schools for some period of time.

While there’s no need to panic (yet), it’s prudent to think about how the potential for a pandemic will impact our work and family life — beyond the worst possibility of ourselves and our loved ones actually getting the disease. Until then, be safe, get the facts straight, prepare for possibilities and PLEASE, if you are sick, stay home!

Are You Being Strategic About Hiring?

If I had a nickel for every time I get an email or text asking if I know any full stack developers for hire, I could cover the cost of my next trip to SF. I’m also struck by the number of founders who say they’re raising more money simply because they need more engineers to code, yet they do not have a good hiring strategy.

For decades, there have been books and articles about building engineering teams. The infamous book The Mythical Man Month, by Fred Brooks should be on every software engineer and tech startup leader’s reading list (It should also be re-titled either “The Mythical Person Month” OR “Nine women can’t make a baby in one month”…just sayin’). There are also many blog posts explaining why full stack engineers are unicorns. Yet, when I did my latest poll on twitter on top hiring priorities this is the response:

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Sure, it’s fine to look for a generalist [or augmenting your team with an outsourced dev shop] to get basic stuff done, but being more strategic about your hiring process, is what could be the difference between a great product in the market vs. something basic that is slow to ship. Below are some tips on how to be more strategic about hiring:

  • Product prioritization leads to hiring prioritization: If you’re doing proper product prioritization via discovery – talking with customers and understanding what you need to get to product market fit or grow adoption – then these priorities set the hiring agenda. For example, if you’re realizing that your on-boarding process is too complicated, then hiring a User Experience (UX) person may serve you far better than someone who can code a fresh UI. If performance issues are causing churn, then hire a performance engineer; someone who knows how to diagnose and fix performance issues. Just like you are building a product to solve for the job to be done, hire the engineer for the development job to be done. 
  • Understand the roles: Do you understand the difference between a front end developer vs. designer vs. UX expert? (if you don’t, read this) Are you fluent enough in your architecture to know what type of engineer should be building which elements of your product? Many early stage companies are started by engineers who know exactly what they’re doing, but many are biased in the areas of which they are most familiar, even if that is the suboptimal choice for their current products. I’ve seen products built with .NET simply because the seasoned engineer-founder knows that platform best, without considering whether it is the best platform for their product and/or whether they’ll be able to hire engineers who are skilled in .NET (or want to learn it) to build it at scale. I’ve also seen many startups default to the language of choice for the full stack engineer they found to build their first prototype and then let that language dictate future work as their product gets market fit and scales. This rarely works out, unless that first engineer is a ringer, and most of the time the reality of having to refactor your entire codebase or port to a new language hangs over the product team…forever. 
  • Long term need vs. short term fix: Another common mistake is hiring a full time expert in an area that only needs occasional work. E.g., Performance engineering. Certainly, if you’re building a complex, distributed, application that has heavy computation or many API calls, then a performance engineer is a critical full time hire. However, it may behoove you to find a good contract engineer who specializes in performance tuning as needed; at least until you’re operating at scale. Same thing for a designer – unless you’re at scale and adding new features/products at a steady clip, then a contract designer may be prudent while you iterate on your MVP. You may pay a little more per hour for these contractors, but that far outweighs over hiring and paying a full time salary early on. 
  • Time Delay + J-curve: Just because you have cash in hand to hire, doesn’t mean you will find and hire the right people right away AND each time you add a new person to the team, there will likely be a j-curve impact on productivity.
    Screen Shot 2019-06-03 at 1.47.59 PM.png
    Therefore, when you prioritize hiring, factor in how long* some roles will take to fill (e.g., we don’t need a designer for a few months, but it could take three months just to find the right person) and be thoughtful about the cadence of adding new people to any team. Adding a bunch of new engineers at once is not going to accelerate development over night. Each time a new person comes on board, it’s disruptive to team’s flow – and this is not just about training them. It disrupts the whole
    dynamic of the team. If you’re doing a lot of hiring over a discrete period of time, set the right expectations (with yourself, your company and your investors) that a ramp in hiring will likely slow things down until new teams settle into new norms. If the ramp is constant, by the way, your teams will never settle into a groove leading to employee dissatisfaction, high turnover, product delays, etc.

    *This delay should also be considered in the budget exercise for these roles. Don’t front-load salary expenses for open jobs that may take weeks or months to fill. 
  • Humans are not robots: Hiring is hard, and even when you get really good at it, at the end of the day these hires are human beings that have their own unique needs, past-job baggage and career aspirations. Their added productivity, how they diversify and/or add to your culture is only part of the consideration. Having a strategy to prioritize manager, team time and money for their human needs (benefits, HR support, a strong on-boarding experience, ongoing training and mentorship, etc.) is just as important as having a strategy to prioritize these hires! 
  • Apply the 80-20 rule: A great product leader will tell you that if you invest 80% of effort to understand the problem, it should result in 20% effort to build the right solution. The same applies to hiring. If you take 80% of your effort to develop a great hiring strategy and program, it should lead to 20% of the effort to bring great people on board and retain them for the long term. 

There’s a severe opportunity cost that comes with bringing on the wrong people and/or at the wrong time and not having the right people programs in place. Even if you are a tiny early stage company, having to let someone go, or having them quit, and finding a replacement not only stresses out the manager and team, but there is a productivity hit to all while you go through the process. Even though it may feel like you’re moving slowly through the process of building a team, a strategic approach will pay off.

You can read more about my thoughts on hiring for startups here. Please share other ideas on this topic in the comments!

Beyond Their Funds, How Can Your Investors Be Helpful?

An entrepreneur recently said to me “When it gets really hard, I feel like I’m doing it wrong.” She went on to say that sometimes she’s not sure how her investors could be helpful — even if it’s just validating what’s hard vs. advising on how to work through certain challenges. I’ve heard other entrepreneurs say they’d like to get help from their investors but worry that purely by asking for help it will signal a weakness. Conversely, I’ve heard investors say they wish the leaders of their portfolio companies would be more transparent about challenges they are facing and ask for help. As one investor said to me recently, “They already sold me on the business and have our money. It’s now our firm’s job to help them succeed.”

In an informal Twitter poll I recently conducted, 56% of entrepreneurs who responded said their most common ask of their investors is for hiring help. Second to that (31%) are asks for introductions to potential partners or customers and a small percentage (13%) tap their investors for financial management advice.

I also polled my investor friends on what questions they like to get from their portfolio companies. What they shared made it clear to me that they can and want to be helpful well beyond their funds!

“Good entrepreneurs are learning machines so they’re always asking for advice and guidance from multiple sources of expertise, including their investors. In fact, the best founders are outstanding at squeezing every bit of insight, advice and contacts from their network of investors and advisers.“ Jeff Bussgang, Flybridge Capital

Do you know how to get the most from your investors? Below, I have outlined what I consider to be basic asks (table stakes) as well as suggestions for deeper asks.

What To Ask For

Hiring

Table Stakes:

  • Referrals and warm introductions
  • Posting job links on their websites
  • Invitations to recruiting events

Beyond the Basics:

  • Seek examples of job descriptions (JDs) and/or critiques of those you’ve written. Most investors were operators once and have a good sense of how to write a good JD; they may also have a recruiting arm at their firm who can counsel you on specific searches. [See point on compensation in Financials, below]
  • New to hiring? Practice interviewing candidates with investors or their associates before bringing actual candidates in for the real interview.
  • Resume screening can be an easy ask and a quick job for someone who’s seen 100’s if not 1000’s of resumes. Experienced eyes can point out immediate red flags and give you specific areas you may want to probe for a particular candidate.
  • Invite an investor to help diversify an otherwise homogeneous interview team. This can be a game changer for a candidate who may otherwise feel like they are a token hire. Knowing the extended team around the business is diverse, can allay these concerns.
  • Ask your investors to help sell the business to prospective candidates. This can be especially critical if you’re trying to hire a senior team member or a start-up first-timer.

    “This is something we continue to do, even with mid-level hires in mid-stage companies when the founder feels like a highly desirable candidate could use an extra push. It’s not a huge burden on our side, but can have a very strong positive impression on the candidate who probably feels like getting board/investor visibility is a strong positive in their career development. “ Rob Go, NextView Ventures

  • Investors can also be helpful offering insights on how your company is perceived as a workplace from their own perspective or from feedback they’ve garnered in the market. (people talk…)
  • Finally, but very carefully, investors may be able to help you get backdoor references on potential hires. I wrote more about this particular topic here. Backdoor references can be helpful, but only if done right!

Marketing, Sales & Partnerships

Table Stakes:

  • Introductions to potential customers and/or partners
  • Putting your company logo on their website; putting their firm’s logo/board member on your website
  • Invitations to marketing & sales events
  • Tapping their social media presence for sharing news and events

Beyond the Basics:

  • Investors look at markets all day, every day, and have an objective perspective on not just current market forces, but patterns over time and how markets move and customers buy. They may not know your specific market details or the intimate buying patterns of your target customer, but as Bob Mason of Project11 says “We often ask the right questions informed by our opportunity to step out of the day to day urgency of running the business. We have enough knowledge to understand the big market forces, see patterns from other businesses and can help drive an engaged dialogue. For the engineering-centric founders, you can think about this as ‘debugging’ an issue. When coding, you might bang your head for hours trying to find the root cause of a hard bug. But you bring over a colleague and talk through the situation and often a solution will appear. They didn’t tell you the answer, but the process of conversation brought insight to your mind.”
  • Whether you are building an enterprise product and need access to a buyer inside a potential large customer or trying to develop partnerships for your business (B2B or B2C), investors can provide invaluable insights on what drives particular companies, who the “real” decision makers are and how their buy/partnership process works. They can reach out to execs at companies and get an early feel as to how important such a potential deal or relationship could be.
  • Investors are generally good at analyzing marketing or sales funnels. If they are former marketers or sales people, they should be able to help you understand the “magic moment”, points of stickiness, drop off, etc.. They also won’t have the biases you likely bring to the table and can look at the numbers objectively.
  • Investors can be helpful with developing your company and product story as well as speak with folks in the industry to see how the story resonates.
  • Beyond offering advice on digital marketing and leveraging social media, your investors may also be helpful with brand awareness and offer PR opportunities. Perhaps they are sponsoring an event where you or a key member of your team can be a speaker? If one of your investors is a blogger, ask for a mention in their next blog post about a topic you’ve been discussing, or perhaps even a guest blog spot. Be creative about how your investors can help shine a light on your brand, product and team!

Product

Table Stakes:

  • If they can use your product as a firm or as individuals, they better be using it! Whether it’s for testing the MVP or to dogfood the brand, no excuses. There’s nothing more compelling than an investor who offers you a cup of coffee made with one of their portfolio company’s new beans or the investor who has a “powered by” one of their companies on their website. Have you asked your investors to use your product?
  • When asked (or not), investors never lack for advice on how your product can improve. Just remember, you are in it every day, they are not. So, always weigh that advice against what your team is discovering with your customers and progress accordingly.

Beyond the Basics:

  • If your investor is a former operator, especially at an early stage company, odds are they have built/tested many an MVP. Engage them in the MVP discussion. Review product priorities and test plans. Again, their objectivity and experience could give you a fresh perspective. This will also help them understand the tradeoff decisions you are making and can be very informative when it comes to strategic thinking about the company’s product roadmap and long term direction.
  • Speaking of roadmaps, if you’ve got a former head of product or VPE on your investor team, invite them to a planning session. Same reasons as above — fresh perspective and added insight when it comes to bigger picture discussions.
  • Security and compliance is an area often overlooked and where investors can probably draw on their own or other resources to ensure your company doesn’t get tripped up on a sale or regulatory issue because an “I” was not dotted or “T” crossed. They may have access to pen testers or be familiar with compliance requirements for things like PIAHIPPA or SOX through other portfolio companies’ experiences; even if it’s just asking when to worry about it vs. holding off on investing in this work.
  • Also helpful is tapping investors’ technical EiRs and/or network. When I was CTO at DigitalOcean, it was amazing to have someone like Martin Casado at a16z, our lead investor, to bounce ideas off of and even help us with some tricky architecture decisions. Similarly, my friend Jocelyn Goldfein of Zetta Venture Partners said she’s often tapped by her portfolio companies to help with developing data strategies and answer questions about data rights. Know who the experts are in these firms and they’ll probably love the opportunity to get into the details with you since it’s no longer their day job.

People

Table Stakes:

  • If they are involved with financial planning, investors should be helpful with basic headcount and organizational growth plans (what roles to fill, how many and when)
  • Investors are generally not shy about telling you (sometimes unsolicited) if they think a key employee they are interacting with is great, needs coaching or may not be successful in your organization. Just remember, if you have a board, other than the CEO, they don’t make hiring or firing decisions. That’s your job.

Beyond the Basics:

  • Whether they were former operators, or have just seen a large number of companies operate, investors can give helpful insight around people and culture. You can ask how to work through team challenges, enhance your company culture or even how to make remote teams work. If they’re not the experts in these areas, they likely have companies in their portfolios who are doing creative things or who maybe learned from mistakes and are willing to share tips and tricks to avoid pitfalls as you scale.
  • While it may make you feel vulnerable, asking your investors for guidance around your own personal development demonstrates your willingness to grow — especially if you are a first-time CEO, or other member of the C-Suite. I’ve seen investors coach leaders on everything from how to lead their teams and handle challenging employees to how to run a great board meeting. I’ve also seen investors support and sometimes even pay for executive coaches and training programs for high-potential leaders.

    “Drop your shields, if you think asking for advice or help from your investors is showing signs of weakness you have it all wrong. Your investors are by definition already on your side and any problem you are facing or any area of growth where you think they may be able to contribute to or connect you to someone who can be helpful, go for it. I want leaders to ask me ‘what am I doing wrong, where can I level up?’” Reed Sturtevant, The Engine

  • Beyond headcount and budgets, investors with experience leading teams at scale can be very helpful with how to think about organizational design through various stages of growth. Investors can also have a really good sense of leveling across organizations and have seen a lot of creative approaches used across companies.

Financials

Table Stakes:

  • Investment checks
  • Future rounds  —  financing strategy, valuation, etc.

Beyond the Basics:

  • It’s never too soon to get “budget religion”, especially if you have a capital-intensive business where you need to figure out working capital, financing with manufacturing, etc.. Ask for guidance on how best to manage your funds as well as how to track burn and prepare data for future financing to make the diligence process easier for new investors. They may even have models or frameworks other portfolio companies use that you can borrow.
  • Not sure whether your compensation packages are competitive or fair? Or how to think about equity vs. salary splits? Comping your sales team? Your investors have probably seen many different configurations and can help you get creative if you’re trying to land a key hire or to retain and motivate your current team.
  • Other financial areas where investors can be helpful are ways to think about marketing spend as a ratio of investment in engineering or sales/revenue, pricing models and tax considerations.

In all of the above cases, if your investors can’t help you directly, odds are very high that they know someone who can. Good investors won’t expect you, especially if you are a first-time founder, to figure it out all by yourself. For me personally, I always appreciate the humility that comes from anyone who knows what they don’t know and asks for help. It is impossible for anyone to know everything!

How To Ask

There are three ways I think every founder should interact with their investors outside of board meetings (if you have them).

  1. Investor update emails are always a good vehicle for asks. If you’re not sure if anyone on the investment team can be helpful, be specific: “Looking for advice on digital marketing strategies.” or “Would love to talk with someone in your network who can advise my team on HIPPA compliance.”.
  2. Routine 1:1 calls or meetings are a must. This establishes a good touchpoint with investors to establish a rapport and catch up informally instead of waiting for a crisis or issue to arise as a reason for a call. I suggest you always have at least one ask for these meetings and always follow up with a quick email with that ask in writing.
  3. Identify at least one domain area where each investor may serve you best (e.g., I am usually the go-to person for product & engineering or organizational planning for my angel investments and advisees). When the needs arise, set up face-time to dig into that specific topic with that investor.

Remember, your investors are not just here to provide cash. They are invested in you and your company’s success. As Jason Seats of TechStars says, when in doubt, “pretend that they are not an investor and figure out what you’d ask them. If you can’t come up with anything, they may not be a good investor for you.” This can also be a nice hack around targeting the right investors from the start.

Have other examples of ways your investors have been helpful beyond their funds? Please share in the comments.

 

Go Big, Or Go…Startup

big Fish Little Fish

Image source unknown

A common career advice question I get all the time is what the tradeoffs are between going to a startup vs. going to a big company. There are many things to consider and lots of “it depends” when it comes to where you are in your career, where you live etc., but when it comes to the general aspects of a startup vs. mature company, most of the situations don’t vary that much. I’ve done both, several times, so here’s a perspective on the tradeoffs based on my own experiences.

Startup vs. Mature Company

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(c) 2018 Julia B Austin

Putting aside for a moment industry and how you feel about the products the company is building (both of which are very important!), most of the differences between a startup vs. a mature company are pretty obvious. In a mature company, you will likely have more role models to learn from and stronger teams to collaborate with, a clear direction and a mature board. The role you consider may have a narrow scope, but could offer deeper learning and of course great benefits, compensation, etc.. You’ll also get exposure to what good (or bad) looks like at scale and possibly a nice brand for your resume.

Startups can offer a chance to do “all the things” which can be either a blessing or a curse depending on your interests. You may miss out on having peers to collaborate with, have to look outside of your company for mentors and role models or have limited budget to get stuff done, but you may get high value equity in exchange for lower than market-level pay. If you want to dig more into deciding which startup to join, I suggest Jeff Bussgang’s book Entering Startupland which goes deep on the different roles at startups and how to get your foot in the door.

Leadership

One thing often overlooked when considering a new job is the leadership of the company. Serial entrepreneurs will have a very different approach than someone who has limited real-world experience and mature company executive teams can be world class or “legacy” leaders who can’t move with the times. There are many tradeoffs when factoring in leadership into the decision process of startup vs. a mature company.

Screen Shot 2018-10-15 at 10.55.10 AM

(c) 2018 Julia B Austin

Startup founded by serial entrepreneurs: This can often be the best case scenario if you want to learn from those who have “seen the movie before”. They likely had no issue raising money and were selective on who their investors were and who sits on their board. They will know how to get the flywheel moving incited by past mistakes OR failures.

“When I started my fifth company I knew exactly how I wanted to build the team. So, on day one I hired a head of recruiting to get things off to a strong start. I also knew market adoption would be critical to fundraising so focused on growth very early on – before we even had a product!” – David Cancel, CEO & Co-Founder Drift

Serial entrepreneurs may also try to overcorrect in areas where they failed the first time, such as over analyzing or delaying decisions, being too conservative on cash flow or focusing too much on scalability too early in the product development process. If you’re interviewing with a serial entrepreneur, it’s always good to ask what lessons they learned in their last startup and how they’re bringing those lessons into their new venture.

“I joined Drift in part because I wanted to learn from the experience of the co-founders. They’ve seen it before so they anticipate issues, they know when (and how) to hire experts to level up the team, and they know what’s “normal” for a hypergrowth company. It’s the best of both worlds: you get the rollercoaster startup experience with some of the more measured leadership and strategic characteristics of a bigger company.” – Maggie Crowley, Product Manager Drift

Industry veterans doing their first startup: Founders coming from mature companies with no startup experience can have big company confidence, be great at hiring and leading teams, but lack scrappiness to get a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) out the door and work towards product market fit.

“At our first startup after a series of roles at large enterprise software companies, we tried to force a big company perspective on how we did employee feedback and reviews. We were too structured with this initially and quickly cut back to a more loose feedback and review process with our team.” Izzy Azeri & Dan Belcher, Co-Founders Mabl

They may also be too used to having teams of people and systems in place to cover the more mundane duties of running a company and don’t want to get their hands dirty. On the flip side, they often know how to implement those processes and know the people to hire to run them so once the flywheel is moving and cash is in-hand, they can get momentum quickly.

“Earlier in my career, I hired a small team within a large corporation that was scrappy and had entrepreneurial mentality. At my startup, I quickly realized the benefit of once having a corporation behind me when things weren’t working out. The impact of a bad decision or process was much greater with no safety net.” – Karen Young, CEO & Founder Oui Shave

Startup with limited leadership experience: Working with a skilled group of founders leading teams for the first time can be tons of fun. If you bring some experience to the table, it can be very gratifying to not only work from the ground up, but also work alongside these founders as they grow. However, it can be frustrating if you find yourself figuring out things on your own because there’s no one in the company to mentor you. These situations can be very rewarding if you’re patient and you can always get outside mentors and advisors if they’re not available at this type of startup.

“When we started, we got a lot of advice like: stay focused, don’t expand too quickly, be careful that experienced hires match your culture.  All good advice, but we discovered there’s no real substitute for learning the hard way. The lesson just doesn’t sink in until you feel the pain of doing it wrong.” Wombi Rose, CEO & Co-Founder LovePop

Mature company with inexperienced leadership: If they made it this far, they are either wicked smart, lucky or both! More likely they also have surrounded themselves with strong, experienced leaders, investors and/or board members. You can learn a lot from joining a company like this, but they are very, very rare! When companies scale too fast, they can also suffer from having people in roles that have outgrown their experience. Read more about the impact of Hypergrowth situations written by my friend at Reboot, Khalid Halim, for First Round.

Mature companies with experienced leadership: These organizations have all the standard things you’d expect. Probably more politics and process than you’d ever find at a startup, but the benefit of exposure to great role models and best practices can be invaluable. Sometimes, these bigger companies can also expose you to the “dark side” of leadership and processes which are also great learnings on what not to do in your next job or company you may start yourself.

Which comes first in your journey?

For those doing early career path planning and knowing they want to do both a startup and a mature company at some point, there’s always the question of which should come first. Hiring managers at early stage companies can get “spooked” when they see someone with too much time (5+ years) at mature companies; questioning whether the candidate will be able to transition to startup life. Not that it’s impossible, but it’s something to consider. For these candidates, I suggest highlighting any scrappy “ground zero” work they may have done at their companies to demonstrate they can handle ambiguity and take risks. I am also a huge (and very biased) fan of people who’ve joined companies early and scaled with them. They have learned a TON from those experiences and can often start scrappy, but know how to operate at scale. Win-win.

Conversely, someone with a lot of startup experience may have a hard time adjusting to mature company. A hiring manager at a mature company may question whether a candidate with only startup experience can handle a slower pace or won’t know how to navigate a complex organizational structure that requires political and communication savvy. You may have to sacrifice title and maybe some salary to get a foot into larger institutions who may view your past role, which may have been very senior at a startup, to being pretty junior if those around you have decades more experience. However, I always find those with startup experience can be invaluable to a team that needs to be shaken up, take more risks or explore new ground. Often, those who sacrifice title and pay when they joined, make it up fast as they move up the chain in a larger organization.

There’s no right or wrong place to start. A lot depends on how you define your skills and how willing and patient you are in either case to adjust. Much can depend on who hires you and their management philosophy. I’ve seen some people bounce between both types of situations over and over, some that just can’t handle startup life, and others who have startups in their DNA and should just stick with that world 🙂

“At a startup, every job matters and you can see almost daily that you are creating something that wasn’t there before. You have the ability to learn quickly and have a fast feedback loop to let you know how you’re doing. It’s very different working at an established company vs a startup, but you can learn a lot at both – you’ll just learn very different things.” – Rebecca Liebman, CEO & Co-Founder LearnLux

Questions To Ask

Regardless of whether you are a seasoned veteran or fresh out of school, as you ponder whether you want to join a startup or a mature company here are some final things to consider:

  • What tools do you want to add to your toolbox? Will the role allow you to hone skills you already have or add new ones?
  • Who do you want to learn from, and how do you want to learn? You can learn from experienced colleagues and mentors, but having bad role models can also teach you a lot about what not to do. Similarly, if you are an experienced hire coming into a company started by inexperienced founders, you may want to learn by mentoring or teaching these young leaders. Taking the skills you’ve developed over your career and applying them to a new situation in itself can be a very enlightening experience.
  • Who do you want to work with? How important is the size and culture of the team you’ll work with? Remember, you’ll probably spend more waking hours of the day with these people than anyone else in your life – regardless of the size and nature of the company you join.
  • What do you value? At the end of the day, love what you do and decide what role will allow you to maintain the integrity of who you are and who you aspire to be!

Do you have other tips on how to decide whether to join a startup vs. a mature company? Please share in the comments!

The CTO to VP Engineering Fork

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[This blog was first posted in 2016, updated in 2018 and in 2020]

There comes a time in every scaling tech start-up’s life when an engineering team begins to show signs of needing help. The symptoms can include lost velocity in releasing new products/features, attrition or morale issues, fragile code or lack of innovation. I frequently hear CEOs and founders say “we need a new CTO” or “should we hire a VP of Engineering?”. But what does that really mean? A title is one thing, but the skills necessary to cure the symptoms is a whole other challenge.

Most tech startups have someone serving as CTO — whether it is one of the co-founders or a first senior hire. The role of the CTO is not straightforward and as a company scales, it’s unreasonable for that role to be the end-all-be-all. In the early days of a startup, the CTO is often the chief cook and bottle washer for all things technical. She is coding, serving as the de facto IT person and project manager as well as meeting customers alongside the CEO and helping with hiring decisions. She is expected to be deeply technical and often a domain expert. Firing on all of these cylinders may meet your company’s needs in the short-term, but quite often, there reaches a point where your CTO is no longer being excellent at what they came to your company to do.

In my experience, there tends to be two types of CTOs that evolve as a company grows:

The Evangelist — The shameless promoter of your product, this CTO is out on the road meeting prospects, existing customers and partners and marketing your product. At the same time, they are gathering valuable insight into your product, its pain-points and understanding how it compares to the competition. They are mindful of industry trends and the ecosystem of which your product belongs. They are the ultimate voice of the customer and are keenly aware of the product priorities. They set the vision for the “.next” of your product and the long-term roadmap. They may have once been a coder and understand the basics of your technology architecture. They can go head-to-head with other technology leaders in your space and represent your company at technology conferences. They also tend to be a recruiting magnet for engineering talent.

This CTO works hand-in-hand with the CEO and sales and marketing leads to set the strategy for the company — from market direction to the operations and scale of the business. They are financially savvy and comfortable presenting to and working with your Board of Directors.

The Expert — Often a domain expert or technical guru, this CTO is heads down with your engineering team ensuring your products are built to perform at scale. They may code, sit in code reviews, and mentor junior engineers. They are either designing your underlying architecture or at the very least leading that conversation and signing off on proposed plans. Also talent magnets, they attract senior engineers who wish to learn from this CTO’s experience. They may be key contributors to the open source community, prolific in filing patents, publishing technical papers and speaking at technical and academic conferences. While they enjoy meeting customers and value the insight from those meetings, they prefer more intimate meetings with technical members of customer teams and whiteboard sessions to brainstorm solutions vs. “selling” your products.

This CTO works closely with the sales and support team and often leaves the company strategy and growth discussions to the CEO and other leaders of the organization. They have an opinion on where the company should go, and they’re not afraid to share that, but they leave the details up to “management”.

In both cases above, it’s rare when one of these types of CTOs is also a master at execution. This is when it is important to have a VP of Engineering (VPE). While a VPE can often be someone who can serve as a voice of the customer, be a technical expert and/or represent the company in technical forums, the VPE’s focus is on GSD. Key characteristics of a VP of Engineering that can often differ from a CTO are:

  • Process oriented — highly organized around priorities, velocity, quality and meeting deadlines. They have strong project management and communication skills.
  • Great at hiring — pattern matching skills for not just technical expertise, but for people who are collaborative and mission-driven. Knows how to ID the prima donna engineer from the eager-to-learn engineer and when to say “no” even with a great looking resume. Being additive to the team is paramount to success.
  • Great at growing their team — this isn’t just about about going from 10 to 40 or 100+ engineers. This is about career development. They’ve got a track record for bringing junior engineers into an organization and developing them into technology leaders and domain experts. Their former engineers have followed them from company to company because they are great to work with. They know how to have fun, but also how to appropriately push a team towards meeting a deadline with urgency and not burn them out.
  • Challenges the status-quo — they won’t just keep building what the co-founders started, but will question both the what and the how. They understand the impact that technical debt can have on the long term scalability of your products. They also know how to tune processes without slowing the company with process. They are motivated to deliver products and features that customers not only need, but love. They partner well with their PM colleagues and both respect and appreciate the inputs from outside engineering (sales, support, the CTO…).
  • Not afraid to get their hands dirty — they lead/attend code reviews, can code if there is an emergency, enjoy tinkering with competitors’ products to understand advantages/challenges of your own products, and appreciate the fine art of squashing bugs. They come in early and stay late when there’s a deadline — even if it’s just to make sure engineers are getting food and coffee.
  • Strategic thinker — while a VP of Engineering may not be at the the table deciding the long term strategy of the company, they are part of the discussion. They understand tradeoffs of time-to-market vs. quality and value the need to get a MVP out the door to garner customer feedback early on. They may push for a product, feature or carving out time to catch up on tech-debt, but also respect the larger vision of the roadmap and know when to let go of something that isn’t a priority — in fact, the really good VPE’s kill things sooner than a CTO or CEO may like for the sake of velocity and GSD.

When you’ve decided it’s time to fork that technology leadership role and have both a CTO and a VPE, look for someone eager to create a partnership who prefers to lean into GSD and growing teams and who values the technology leadership, vision and evangelism of your CTO. That person may be a strong leader within your engineering organization or you’ll have to recruit for the position. If recruiting from outside of your company, be leery of career CTOs who seek a role as VPE at your company — they may say they’re willing to be in charge of GSD, but could struggle to partner with your CTO. Look for examples of their past engineering leadership roles as managers or tech leads. Have their former employees followed them to different companies? Also look for measurable achievements like improved velocity rates, quality improvements or hiring/team development metrics. Those are telltale signs that you’ve got a solid VPE candidate.

Sometimes it takes a lot of soul searching for a founding CTO to realize they’re not serving the company well around VPE-types of activities. I’ve seen plenty of CTOs worried that with a VPE on board, they’re not sure what’s next for them at the company. I’ve also seen CTOs excel when partnered with a great VPE where they can set the vision and execution strategy in tandem. Similarly, I have seen companies bring in a great CTO when their current head of engineering is just not ready for or interested in that role (internal or external facing). It can be a great mentoring opportunity for the head of engineering and/or allows them to keep focusing on GSD.

One more thing to consider (added in 2020): Whether they more closely associate with the Evangelist or the Expert, CTOs can also be great leaders of VPs (Engineering, Product, Design, etc.). They can “glue” these teams together to ensure that the vision and execution of products move well together. These CTOs can also serve as bridges to other teams — fostering healthy working relationships with support, sales, marketing, etc.. However, not every CTO is (or wants to be) a great people/team leader, even at a higher and more strategic level. In these situations, VPs may be better served by reporting to CEO or COO. When the organization is designed this way, the CTO would typically report directly to the CEO and could still have a team of individual contributors (architects, scientists, mini-CTOs) report to them if the need/desire arises.

Have you struggled with the CTO to VPE fork? Share your experience in the comments!