“Are they trying to get rid of me, or is this a normal thing that happens as the company grows?”
is the question I had from 3 different CTOs in the last 3 months alone.
They asked this because their board either:
✓ asked them to change their title to CSO (Chief Scientific Officer), CDO (Chief Digital Officer), CA (Chief Architect), CIO (Chief Innovation Officer), CEGO (Chief Engineering Officer) or any similar title so they can hire “a commercial CTO who’d be seen in a favourable light by the series B, C, etc investors” or
✓ asked them to split their role in two: “I know you’re the CTO but we need to hire a more commercial CTO who has a track record of breaking into X market, so can you please split your role into two: CTO and CA/CDO/CSO/CIO/CEGO etc” or
✓ asked them to become (if they already have an operational VP Engineering) “a technology/engineering advisor to the new commercial CTO and get new title as CEGO, CIO etc”.
These are different ways different boards are trying to fix the same problem that 90% of startups have:
✓ the startup labels their Lead Developer/Principal Engineer (the tech founder or first/most experienced coder) as CTO without thinking about the future and…
Here’s how it impacts and manifests for you and the company:
✓ There’s nowhere to go up from “CTO” — so by starting at the top, you literally have set yourself up for never getting a promotion while at this company
✓ you (the now CTO) yesterday were perhaps a Senior Engineer, or Senior Principle Engineer, or Lead Developer, or PhD or Senior Scientist. You usually don’t have experience of being a strategic CTO in a previous company, so you constantly feel stretched and worried about what you are doing (unless you are an arrogant geek with no self awareness, in which case you don’t even realise that you are a terrible CTO)
✓ when the company grows to a level where various stakeholders (customers, investors, etc) need to see a commercial CTO at the helm, they start having the problem of:
“How do we tell the CTO that they’re not really a CTO for the stage of development the company is at now!?”
✓ different boards find different solutions as above, but I’ll tell you one thing: as the startup CTO, the worst thing you could do when they talk to you about “dethroning you as CTO” is to get defensive, angry and argumentative and put your ego first. Those are the CTOs who get kicked out of their own companies. Believe me — the CEO is cringing at having to have this conversation with you, and they expect you to react badly — so if you react in a collaborative way, they’ll be relieved and you can usually find a solution that works both for you and for the company.