How to lead in tech

What makes a good CTO? Top CTOs explain their approaches

Coman Hamilton
CTO image via Shutterstock

Do CTOs spend all their time researching new tech trends? Or do they focus on specifics? JAXenter editor Coman Hamilton spoke to several veteran CTOs from PayPal, ING Bank, Basho and other global tech companies to find out what makes a good Chief Technology Officer.

Is there a formula to being a successful leader in technology? The variety in responses from different CTOs might be an indicator that there is still no general consensus on what it means to be a CTO. Several international tech bosses told us what matters most to them when spearheading tech innovation.

“Don’t build tech for tech’s sake” – James Barrese, PayPal CTO

Don’t get caught up in the fad of the day. You know, there are these cool, hip memes, almost, that go through the tech industry. For a while it was social networking, and before then it was probably search or e–­commerce. Instead you should focus on what fantastic customer value that you can enable.

So be really passionate about solving a customer pain point. And otherwise, in general, don’t build tech for tech’s sake.

“Communicate concepts to a broad audience” – Dave McCrory, Basho CTO


Dave McCrory, Basho CTO

A good CTO is someone who is able to rapidly understand complex technical concepts, simplify them, and then communicate concepts to a broad audience. Creating a vision to lead the technical group of the company from this ability and being transparent as a leader.

“Be in touch” – Henk Kolk, ING Bank CTO

I want to start by saying I might not be the best CTO [laughs]. But there are people working their company who have that kind of role. And what they do is amazing. They are so in touch with what is happening in the world. There’s one guy that sends me so much stuff to read each weekend that I just don’t have enough hours.

henk kolk

Henk Kolk, ING Bank CTO

To be in touch with everything that’s going on and to really understand the new paradigm that we’re in… that’s the role of the CTO, or chief architect, or chief engineer (that’s a title I’d really like to have the next time). But also you have to understand the whole thing, you have to understand infrastructure, you have to understand the domains you’re responsible for, the business domains, you have to understand how technology works… all these things. But foremost, if your CTO is not in touch with what is happening in China, what is happening in Silicon Valley, then your whole company is in trouble.

“Constantly look at alternatives” – Kurt Bittner, Forrester analyst


Kurt Bittner, Forrester

Well, things are moving so fast that a strong connection to the technology to understand what’s possible and what the alternatives are. And to be constantly looking at those alternatives. And a similarly intense focus on customer needs. So the CTO really provides a lot of guidance around understand what things our customers are trying to do and can’t do today. And these are the kinds of technology alternatives that might help us do those things better. And a disconnect from either one of those leaves a person unable to the job as effectively as they should.

“Take responsibility for bad things that happen” – Stephan Schmidt, ‘ÜberCTO’

stephan schmidt

Stephan Schmidt, ‘ÜberCTO

People skills need to be at the centre of a successful CTO. The most important task of every CTO is to develop his team and create a culture of people development in the tech organisation. Developing his team takes a significant portion of his time. One often neglected topic by technical people is networking. Networking with business functions like marketing and sales is essential which makes this a crucial trait of successful CTOs.

This includes being able to bridge technology and business. While decisions get pushed down and teams self organise, good CTOs need to take ultimate responsibility for everything bad that happens and give credit for everything good that happens. As companies go through stages, CTO skills depend on the phase a company is in. During each phase CTOs need to focus on different things from programming, scaling, stabilising towards creating a predictable tech organisation and (re-)innovation.


Paul Fremantle, WSO2 CTO

“Balance breadth and depth” – Paul Fremantle, WSO2 CTO 

I think the biggest challenge for a CTO is to balance breadth and depth. You know, I think one of the jobs of the CTO is to make connections between customer problems and technologies, between different technologies inside a company. So breadth is very important for making these kinds of connections. But having some depth and understanding what the real-world implications of “Well we should do X and Y …” is really difficult as well.

SEE ALSO: How much technology does a software architect need to understand?

It’s more of a challenge the longer you go. When we started out there were 30 developers inside of WSO2 and I knew exactly what they were all doing and I helped joined the dots between them. And now there’s 300 developers, so I’m only scratching the surface with them. I actually started doing a part-time doctorate so as to create my own depth in a different area. Because I can’t stick my fingers into people’s code. Some of my code is still a core part of the ESB we ship. But I can’t do that now. I’m just too busy and I’d be messing it up. I started doing a part-time doctorate so I have my own sidethings I can be really deep in.

“Check your ego at the door” – Doug Turnbull, CTO


Doug Turnbull, Quepid CTO

A CTO hires folks that disagree with them. The team that quietly gets their work done never has the right level of ownership. I’d rather build a team that annoys the crap out of me because they care so deeply. But the trick is exactly what they care about. They care about the product: consciously avoiding making things personal.

CTOs must further work to ensure those less inclined to speak, especially women and minorities, can find their voice in the fray. A big part of this is checking your ego at the door: the CTO that can lead by following and allow teams to make their own mistakes creates a team that sticks together and thrives.

“Understand business and technology” – Marc Jones, CTO SoftLayer, an IBM Company


Marc Jones, Softlayer CTO

The pace of innovation continues to accelerate and CTOs need ability to learn quickly (and often).

The intersection of business and technology also continues to accelerate. Today CTOs need to have a better understanding of both to be successful – it can’t just be a technical focus. This allows CTOs to make informed decisions in the best interest of the company – they can no longer just focus on new, up-and-coming technology.

CTO has to be willing and able to talk to customers and really listen.  It’s not always what they say out loud, the skill is to read between the lines and  aggregate feedback from all customers to derive future of products and services.  Direct feedback is absolutely paramount to success!

Coman Hamilton
Coman was Editor of at S&S Media Group. He has a master's degree in cultural studies and has written and edited content for numerous news, tech and culture websites and magazines, as well as several ad agencies.

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