Gates. Jobs. Bezos. It’s easy to name some prominent CEOs -- chances are, you recognized those examples by last name alone. But try naming a few chief technology officers (CTOs), and the task is suddenly much harder.
Elon Musk is arguably today’s most well-known CTO. But I would bet that many, prior to reading this sentence, were aware that he holds this title at SpaceX -- he’s much better known as its CEO. Musk is one person with two critical roles, but receives far more recognition for one over the other.
Unfortunately, this is true on the larger scale. All companies, especially startups, require equally strong leaders in both CEO and CTO roles in order to succeed, but acknowledgement is rarely split evenly.
This particular topic hits close to home for me: Andrew Waage, my co-founder and the CTO of Retention Science, recently turned 30. It led me to reflect on the 15 years I’ve known Andrew, as well as our journey in starting three companies together. Looking back, it struck me how often Andrew’s role goes unnoticed, when really, it deserves the most celebration.
The tendency to overlook the CTOs of companies, even at tech startups, sets a potentially dangerous precedent for leaders of young companies. It’s easy to equate strong CEOs with their companies, such as Bezos with Amazon, and even easier for entrepreneurs to want to aim for visionary status. There’s a reason HBO’s Silicon Valley promo ads, which depicted tech hopefuls in identical black turtlenecks, all striking that iconic Steve Jobs hand-to-chin pose, worked as an instantly understandable pop-culture reference.
However, true leadership means recognizing the unsung heroes behind every visionary instead of getting caught up in trying to be one. What’s more, failing to do so can lead to friction between business partners and losing sight of the business’ long-term success.
Here’s how to stay grounded:
1. Don’t lose sight of partnership.
The CTO is tasked with translating business and product requirements into technical objectives, and ensuring that the infrastructure of the company is scalable and performing at the highest level. Their responsibilities are more internal, which means fewer opportunities to be commended by others outside of the team.
In contrast, CEOs primarily deal with external affairs, from meeting with investors to communicating the company vision to the press and the public. As a result, the chief executive often receives more external recognition, whether it’s a quote in a publication or as an award recipient on behalf of the company.
This is a natural division created by the nature of both roles, but still, the relationship between CEOs and CTOs can be a tricky subject. A shared vision is important, but one person receiving more recognition for a joint endeavor can chafe and cause resentment. It can even bring the company down.
In my experience, communication and mutual trust are key. Leaders must be up front with each other to keep small issues from escalating. What’s more, trust in each other’s motives builds confidence as partners, and partnership is the cornerstone of a successful CEO-CTO relationship.
2. Say thank you -- often.
Starting and growing a business is no easy feat, and it’s common to get caught up in the day-to-day battles. However, it’s crucial for leaders to remember to regularly say “thank you” to each other, and take time to appreciate the skills each partner brings to the table.
Jason Lemkin, founder of Echosign, recently tweeted a reminder to his followers:
Whether your co-founder or your CTO -- or in my case, both -- showing your appreciation for your business partner strengthens your bonds, reminds you of your partner’s value and assures them they’re not taken for granted. It’s a simple exercise that has major impact, and it’s important for all entrepreneurs to do it more often.
3. Celebrate your unsung heroes.
Perhaps the most important takeaway for CEOs of young companies is that leadership is not about the leader, it’s about the team. Success does not happen overnight, and depends on more than just a strong partnership between CEO and CTO.
For long-term success, leaders must realize that success is a team effort, and celebrate their achievements accordingly. It’s up to each CEO to advocate for their CTOs and the engineers and programmers who support them.
Andrew is both my CTO and co-founder at Retention Science. I have always appreciated that he is driven by the desire to build the best product and team, not by fame or recognition. I feel incredibly lucky to have a business partner and CTO who stays focused on the big picture, but I’m even more proud of the team we’ve built together.
As a CEO of a young company, I still have a lot to learn. But I’m committed to our vision, and even more committed to celebrating our team. I’d like to conclude by recognizing all of the CTOs and engineers out there:
Thank you for the code you’ve written and rewritten, the late nights and your efforts that are never celebrated enough. Because your expertise are in fields most people don’t understand, too few know the skill it takes to build great products that don’t break, that scale properly, and that do what they’re supposed to do.
You are innovators and inventors, who translate the theoretical into the actual. You are the unsung heroes, and the true drivers behind any technology company. Thank you. You rock.