Should the modern CTO know how to code?

Here's why you may have the role completely wrong
Hywel Carver
Generic image of a CTO

It’s a question that plagues tech organisations of all sizes, from the smallest startup, to international mega-corporations: Should the modern CTO know how to code? More importantly, is it necessary for success?

Evolving role of the CTO

The role of the CTO is to ensure the commercial success of the company through technology, but the responsibilities within this role, and the employees you’re responsible for, flex massively depending on the size of your organisation.

Having knowledge of how to code, in any language or degree, is helpful in being empathetic of both the context and the time constraints your team is working within. Understanding the actual tech they’re using is less of a necessity, but CTOs should be able to use the terminology their team uses with confidence.

If you’re the CTO of a startup, it’s likely that you’ll need a stronger understanding of coding because you’ll be a ‘player coach’, and you may even be writing the first version of the company’s product. Startups work with limited resources, meaning that as CTO, you may regularly moonlight as a senior engineer.

As the organisation grows, investment into developing the coding skills of the development team is key, ensuring there’s no loss of this talent and technical knowledge as employees transition to more senior roles, and guaranteeing that the same innovative product built by the startup is able to evolve.

Understanding the principles

A huge benefit of having even some coding knowledge is you will immediately have a better understanding of the trade-offs involved, and are better placed to make sensible decisions, and exercise good judgement for the organisation.

CTOs need to have trust in the people below them, and believe that they are capable of doing their jobs, whether they’re leading a team of 10 or 10,000. This also means they need to invest in coaching, and mark aside time for their teams to learn and develop their skills. A balanced workflow is more likely to come from the CTO knowing the strengths and weaknesses of their team, and having a genuine interest in supporting them to enhance their skill set. The best CTOs can envision how these varying skill sets can come together to build the best outcomes, effectively shaping the technology they’re overseeing.

It's unlikely that the CTO can add any technical value to a developer on their team, but they can put in place good practices, like pair programming practices to ensure that a high standard of quality is being upheld. Ultimately, CTOs don’t need to understand every aspect of code or to be the most up-to-date coder in the organisation, and they shouldn’t be if they want the organisation to thrive!

Maximising CTO resources

CTOs who feel self-conscious about their tech skills should consider what strengths they are bringing to the business, from driving the organisation forward with their people management skills, to understanding what development opportunities their team needs.

Whatever the size of the organisation, the CTO needs to be intentional in supporting their team. From expanding their capabilities with in-work coaching opportunities, to staying up to date with the latest technical knowledge - regular learning opportunities improve retention, and gives CTOs more resources to work with. Hiring is far more costly than learning, and at a time when teams are being asked to do more with less, consistent learning and development opportunities mean the unique skill sets of teams can be nurtured.

What does the modern CTO of a startup need to be - technically versed, an excellent leader, or both?

A CTO that’s aspiring for long-term success needs to have a balanced view of the organisation, and of their role - knowing what their employees are capable of, gearing them up for greater success, and being well versed in their product and technology.

They don’t need to be the most technically able in the company, but they do need to be an inspiring and fair leader, who knows what works where, and when. Unless they’re the CTO of a startup, and working incredibly close to a codebase of their own, a modern CTO isn’t maximising their organisation’s outcomes by coding at work.

So, should the modern CTO know how to code?

As a CTO, there’s something to be said for constantly reassessing and investing in your skills, but this doesn’t mean they need to know how to code. A modern CTO should be focusing on growing their devs’ coding abilities rather than their own. It’s the people skills of empathy and communication, as well as leadership and management, that we need most in our senior leaders, rather than their coding ability.

We should all be taking advantage of opportunities to learn no matter our position in the business, and whilst CTOs can go far with strong technical skills, it will be their strong business skills, and dedication to upskilling their developers that will grow their organisation.

Hywel has over a decade of experience as a founder Chief Technology Officer (CTO), consulting CTO and CTO Coach. He is the co-Founder and CEO of Skiller Whale, a Venture Capital backed company disrupting how technology teams learn, inspired by Hywel’s experience as an undergraduate at Cambridge University.

Written by
Hywel Carver
Written by
January 6, 2023