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What a CTO Does: P.P.A.P. and Startup CTO vs Corporate CTO
The job of a CTO is 4 key job roles, but depending on if it is a startup or large company, the roles flip
What a CTO does is a mystery for some people. Even for those who work in tech, it is often up for debate. They are like mythical code ninjas that can solve any tech problem. Do they write code? Are they a product visionary? The job is very different from a small startup compared to a large corporation.
I have come up with a framework that I think perfectly summarizes and visualizes what a CTO does and how it differs from the startup to corporate world.
It even comes with an acronym, song, and dance you will never forget.
It is time to introduce you to PPAP.
What is P.P.A.P.?
You are likely to read this and it will seem obvious. That is a good thing. What may not be obvious is the order of importance of these items.
I think most people will agree that these are the 4 most important job roles of being a good CTO. But as you will read below, the order of them is the key.
Building software is a team sport. It takes a lot of people and a lot of different skills and job roles. The bigger a company gets, the harder it is to manage all those people. Many corporations have a lot of middle managers who spend most of their time on people management. Including mentoring, 1 on 1s, team meetings, protecting the team, advocating for the team, etc.
Although, a lot of that time is spent getting them to follow the right processes…
Software development is like an assembly line. Some of you won’t agree with me when I say that, but I think it is.
It takes good planning and requirements on the front end, good engineering at the heart of it, and sometimes a lot of work to test and get code to production. Not to mention all the communication required to tell the world about the work that was done!
Managing this process can be complex and it is usually controlled chaos when you are in the trenches week in and week out.
Managers spend a lot of time trying to keep the requirements, pull requests, and deployments moving along… just like an assembly line.
Another key component to the process is ensuring everyone is following the right architecture patterns…
Architecture could mean a few things. How are the teams architected? How do we host and deploy the software? But more likely, it is critical decisions around technology stacks, data models, microservices, testing strategies, security, and similar topics.
Getting these architecture decisions right can be the difference between success and failure or over complexity versus simplicity. A CTO needs to ensure the right complexity is being used for the needed solution.
Code is rarely the problem in most startups. The problem is usually bad architecture decisions.
But none of it matters without making a good product…
Let’s be honest. Product is everything. Developers write code to bring to life a product that solves problems and creates value and revenue for a company.
Without some type of value creation, you have code with no value.
The hardest part about software development is getting the product team to agree on a direction and provide good requirements. In a startup, this is very difficult to do because the product direction and priorities are constantly changing.
Some CTOs are Visionary CTOs who are also good at visualizing what a product needs to do and translating it to their team to build. This skill set is super critical for startups, but it is also how big companies continue to innovate.
NOTE: There is No Code in PPAP
I want to point out that there is no C for code in PPAP.
A CTO’s job is not about code. In a super early-stage startup, a CTO might help hack some code together. If they are the product visionary, they might even be a 10x developer for a while to help prototype some features and get the product to market.
I’m a huge fan of CTO’s building prototypes. For startups, their whole product might be one giant prototype.
In a small company, being CTO also means being in charge of QA, DevOps, deployments, the clouds, and all the other little things it takes to build, deploy, and manage software.
If they have other developers on the team, their most important work will always be making those people more productive. They still have to manage people and processes. The CTO is always is also in charge of the inputs and outputs of the assembly line.
Understanding the order of PPAP
The order of these PPAP items is really the key. Hopefully, you will have the same aha moment that I also had when thinking about it this way.
In a large company, the job of a CTO is very different than startups. Like most leadership positions, it becomes more about managing people and processes. You help set the direction of some strategic decisions but the rest of it is people management and making sure they follow the process and architecture decisions. You may also be involved in high-level roadmap decisions at a product level.
The larger a company gets, the further a CTO will get away from the details of the architecture, the product, and the code. All of that is now being handled by VPs and directors that work for you.
Large companies also don’t make as many product decisions. The product is more mature, and the company is likely making small changes while most things are in maintenance mode.
The PPAP responsibilities for a CTO in a larger company will look more like this inverted pyramid. Most time is spent on people and processes.
If we contrast this to the CTO of a startup, the role is totally opposite!
There are very few or maybe no people to manage. The company is simple, and its processes are simple. Super early-stage startups need a different kind of CTO.
Startups need a product oriented CTO. They need someone who can bring the product to life. They need a “solution architect” and someone who can make smart architectural decisions.
While big corporations have a more mature product, startups either don’t have a complete product at all or the whole thing is constantly changing. The iteration cycles of innovation must be fast and furious if the startup is going to find the customers and revenues it needs to survive.
This success or failure of the company is firmly in the hands of the CTO to deliver both a good product, and well-architected code that works.
The pyramid for startups is the exact opposite. Most of the job is product and architecture.
The CTO Career Path
If you follow my PPAP framework and the two different pyramids, you can also see why we have very different types of CTOs at software companies. The role of the CTO also varies a lot across different types of industries.
The Corporate CTO
Some people rise through the ranks at large corporations and become CTOs. They become experts at navigating corporate bureaucracy, leading teams, and managing people and processes.
In a large company, it is very difficult to steer the ship and innovate. “The way we have always done it” and corporate bureaucracy are the never-ending uphill battles you must fight against.
They become experts at managing people and processes, but mostly another P… politics.
The Startup CTO
The other batch of CTOs follow my career path.
I worked in a very small company and through trial by fire, I got a lot of on-the-job training in rapidly prototyping and building products.
Innovation happened as fast as I could hack together the code and no bureaucracy was in my way.
This environment breeds a different kind of CTO that becomes an expert at understanding requirements and figuring out how to build a product and the software to bring it to life. They become innovators. They become product people.
These people tend to become startup founders like me. They can take business ideas and bring them to life.
We know how to build software, so why not build our own software?
My survey found that about 50% of CTOs were startup founders.
Growing from Startup CTO to Corporate CTO
The challenge for many startups as they scale is can key employees grow with the company. The head of sales, customer service, or even software development might be the perfect person when you have 20 employees but isn’t the right person when there are 200 employees.
As a CTO, you can see how their focus on the PPAP framework must slowly slide from one side to the other.
They must learn to become more of a leader and get good at delegating.
They must learn to get out of the weeds.
They must learn that they provide more value by making everyone else more productive than what they can achieve themselves.
I know this because it took me 15+ years to go through this evolution.
The most powerful thing they can bring is their product mentality with them. If they are in the right kind of company, they can still be the Visionary CTO who is the champion of innovation and change.
I have learned that the best thing I can do is hire a VP of Head of Engineering and delegate to them most of the people and process management. I even wrote about how I could never be a VP of Engineering. I’m a product CTO.
For bigger companies to be more innovative, they need to hire more product-oriented CTOs who were born in the fire of small companies and startups.
Big tech companies also need product-oriented Visionary CTOs.
The PPAP Inspiration, Song, and Dance
Have you ever heard the PPAP (Pen Pineapple, Apple Pen) song? Well, that was my inspiration for this. Hopefully, this song and dance will permanently burn into your memory what a CTO does. P-P-A-P!