The Path to CTO: Thinking Beyond Your First Job After Coding Bootcamp
By The Fullstack Academy Team
Not every student wants to get the same job after coding bootcamp. Some bootcamp grads are mission-driven and intent on finding a job they love at a company whose work matters to them. Others want to take the skills they’ve learned and use them to build their own products. Then there are those who want to forge a more traditional career in the tech sector and eventually make it to the C-suite.
Lofty ambitions are admirable, but should be tempered with an understanding of the work—and luck and connections and sacrifices—it will take to get there. There is no such thing as an express elevator to the CTO-level, but if you want to climb to the top of the tech ladder, here’s what it will take to get there.
What Does a CTO Do?
Remember: There Is No Blueprint for Becoming a CTO
The first thing to note is that no single degree or credential will put you on the path to CTO. Brian Yoder, chief software architect at Moffat and Nicol, says that educational background has nothing to do with becoming a CTO. In fact, some of the best CTOs Yoder has known didn’t even go to college.
Nor is there even a standard career path from developer to CTO. UK consultancy Agile8 analyzed the careers of some of the industry’s leading CTOs and found that it takes a developer, on average, 24 years and eight different roles to become a CTO. Yet current Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer was just 27 when he became CTO at Sun Microsystems, and IBM’s Kristof Kloeckner landed the CTO spot after holding only one previous role. Qualcomm’s Matthew Grob never once changed companies, working his way steadily up from engineer to CTO over 20 years’ time.
While data shows that most CTOs will change companies at least once, Grob’s experience also isn’t exactly unique. InfoTrack CTO Daniel Ryding started at the company as a developer, and moved up to CTO in just four years. Ryding attributes his success in part to the fact of his having worked at every level within the company, an experience that and gave him a deep understanding of the company he would never otherwise have had.
As you can see, no two journeys to CTO will be exactly the same. The education, career path, and specific trajectory will change depending on the individual, but almost all successful CTOs share one key trait: They developed programming skills—and then continued to grow by honing their understanding of computer science, their business acumen, their product savvy, their soft skills, and more.
How to Become a CTO
1. Learn to Code—Very Well
A future CTO won’t always be the person everyone recognizes as the top software developer at a company. But anyone aspiring to an executive role at a tech company must absolutely understand a number of different tech stacks and be willing to learn as technology evolves.
Otherwise, things can go downhill fast. Monzo CTO Jonas Huckestein has seen a lot of projects go sideways because the people in charge didn’t understand the technology. “A good manager needs to be able to understand what's happening at a lower level and, if required, actually do the work themselves,” Huckestein says.
Likewise, a good CTO should be able to foresee any challenges in a project before it starts, says Tamara Atanasoska, co-organizer of Stacktrace. This can help the company proactively avoid issues or at least have a plan for how to overcome those obstacles. You can’t anticipate challenges, however, if you don’t know the stack through and through.
Strong programming skills lay a solid foundation for success and ensure your team trusts you, says Camille Fournier, former CTO of Rent the Runway. “While technical skills are not the most important element to being a good CTO, spend plenty of time early in your career honing your engineering and technical architecture skills because these skills form the basis for your credibility with your team," she says.
2. Now Learn More Than Code
Nir Zuk, founder and CTO of Palo Alto Networks, says strong interpersonal skills are essential for any CTO, describing the role as one that bridges the gap between technology and business. As a result, CTOs need to develop strong working relationships with the organization’s stakeholders and department leaders as well as members of their own technical team if they are to succeed.
For Peter Lyons, senior software engineer at Reaction Commerce, having communication skills is what distinguishes those who reach top management positions quickly. Getting experience in a client-facing role is a key part of building that skill set: Developers who progress to management levels and eventually to the role of CTO know not only how to act as a brand ambassador, but also how to interface with non-technical individuals, from customers to colleagues within the organization.
Learning how to manage people is equally important, says Simon Dowling, CTO at Ori Industries in London. Understanding different personalities and how to manage them can often become a job in itself, but it’s an incredibly important ability when deadlines are looming, stress is high, and teams need to band together. Knowing when to delegate, when to ask for input, and how to gain commitment from your team are exactly the kinds of soft skills aspiring CTOs should seek to develop.
Coding Itself Will Become Less Important as You Are Promoted
Getting promoted to a management role and on to CTO almost always means phasing coding out of your day-to-day responsibilities. While you may want to carry on doing what you love, your team won’t need your programming knowhow as much as your guidance and management. “Instead, they’ll wonder why they haven’t had a one-on-one discussion with you for two weeks,” says Elaine Wherry, co-founder and CTO of Meebo, which Google acquired in 2012.
Greater interaction with other departments throughout the company will also be necessary. You can’t work in a silo with other technical people if you want to succeed as CTO, says Yonatan Striem-Amit, CTO of Cybereason. As CTO, you are responsible for entire product lifecycles, not just building the products themselves. That means you’ll need to widen your horizons and understand how different parts of the company—like branding and marketing, sales, customer service, and more—work together to create the full product experience.
Additionally, you’ll need a thorough understanding of customers’ needs and how your product addresses them, says tech recruiter Andrew Raymond. It’s not enough to know the product; you must be able to see the larger business context and how your product fits in.
The thought of a coding-free, meeting-packed work schedule may scare some developers, but that’s often the reality of being CTO. If this isn’t what you had in mind for your future day-to-day workload, then you may want to rethink your career ambitions, says Adam Dunkley, a former CTO and current head of engineering at dog food subscription company Paws. But always remember that the kind of work you enjoy will change as you grow and gain experience, and the work that scares you today may be exactly what you want to do more of a decade from now.
The path to CTO is often long and never easy. If you’re serious, start now—at coding bootcamp Fullstack Academy, which will empower you with the programming skills you need to jump into a developer role and start building your career, all in just 17 weeks. Learn more about us here.