Because I teach programming, I get a lot of people who reach out to me for advice on finding a CTO or lead developer for their startup.
Most of the time, I can’t be very helpful. Unfortunately the best developers are in really high demand, so they’re likely to already be working at a well-paying job at an exciting company.
I know all this from first-hand experience, which eventually led me to teach myself how to code in the first place.
But I do have some advice for entrepreneurs looking to hire their first CTO
1. As a CEO at a startup, your most important job is finding and keeping the right talent on the team.
So make it your job to find a CTO. And by that I mean: spend the real time that it takes. You should be dedicating at least 25% of your time (10+ hours per week) sourcing and interviewing candidates. It’s not going to happen if you just spend an hour or two on it each week.
2. Go to places where you’re likely to find good technical talent.
Like hackathons, conferences (for example, CTO Summit), and meetups. Avoid places where other non-technical people will likely also be pitching developers.
3. Don’t pitch developers on your startup.
At least not right away. Get to know them first, what their interests are, maybe find something you can geek out about with them. I say this only because developers are used to getting pitched startup ideas all the time and it’s definitely a turn off. The number of time I’ve heard “This is going to be the next billion dollar business…”
4. Figure out what you’re looking for.
I once saw a flier looking for a developer to help build a mobile app, and they wanted a developer with “C++, Java, PHP or Python experience” which to me was a clear give-away that they didn’t know what the hell they were talking about (because none of those languages are used for building mobile applications).
I know that as a non-technical founder it can be hard to know what you’re looking for, which is why you want to find a technical co-founder in the first place, but first make it your mission to learn enough to figure out what you need. If you can’t do that, then you’ll sound naive to any technical person that you talk to.
5. Look for developers at just below the CTO level at startups similar to yours.
Roles like VP of Engineering or Engineering Lead where there’s already a CTO at that startup means that they probably have the experience required to be a CTO but might not be getting the opportunity where they currently are. You can search for people like this through LinkedIn.
Definitely make sure they have at least had experience shipping a product if you want to give them the responsibility of building yours.
On a side note… do you know what the difference between a CTO and a lead developer is? Traditionally, CTOs don’t actually spend much of their time coding. Mostly they’re thinking about technical problems, asking questions, and setting strategy regarding technology for the company.
At a startup of course everyone is doing everything, but just know that a CTO’s role becomes less and less about coding over time, so if you’re looking for someone who will be a developer for you for a long time, maybe give them the title of VP of Engineering or Lead Developer rather than CTO.
6. When you do find someone you like, try them out.
This is especially true for people you’ve never worked with before. Set up a 1 month consulting period before you commit anything to paper (like equity compensation and salary, though you should definitely have these things agree on in advance). Pay them for their work during this period (for legal reasons).
The intention is that after a month you both get to evaluate whether it’s working. It’s as much for them as it is for you. If they decided after 30 days that they didn’t enjoy working with you, they’d want the opportunity to walk away also, right?
That’s it, my 6 tips for finding a CTO or lead developer. There are many more valuable bits of advice though, so if you have any others that come to mind, please post them in the comments!