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Noya is Director of Content at Viola Group
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13 experienced startup CTOs offer their top tips to first-time CTOs

By July 24, 2015

For many techie types (and marketing, biz-dev, and other types too, for that matter) joining a startup and being a part of something that could potentially become the next big thing, is a truly exciting venture. And if you’re lucky enough to be appointed as the technical lead, it could be an amazing, life-changing experience, but one that’s almost certain to include LOTS of challenges, bumps in the road, and possibly a few near (or actual) catastrophes.

Happily, although challenges present themselves at every stage of a startup’s life, the more experience you gain along the way, the easier they become to manage.

So for the benefit of aspiring and first-time CTO, I have asked experienced CTOs at some of our (Viola Group’s) coolest portfolio companies to share their top tips to help you start the job on the right foot and hopefully pave the way for as smooth a ride as possible as a startup CTO. Enjoy!

“What is the most important advice you would give to a newly appointed CTO of a startup company?”
The Top
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Click on a CTO’s name below to jump straight to their answer:

13 experienced startup CTOs offer their top tips to aspiring and first-time CTOs Dr. Gadi Solotorevsky, CTO at cVidyaDr. Gadi Solotorevsky
CTO
cVidya
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Itay Milrad, CTO, ironSourceItay Milrad
CTO
ironSource
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Michael Schuldenfrei, CTO, Optimal+Michael Schuldenfrei
CTO
Optimal+
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Yuval Ben-Itzhak, CTO, OutbrainYuval Ben-Itzhak
CTO
Outbrain
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Noam Oren, Chief R&D Officer, PayoneerNoam Oren
Chief R&D Officer
Payoneer
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Yoram Mizrachi, CTO & Co-founder, Perfecto MobileYoram Mizrachi
CTO & Co-founder
Perfecto Mobile
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Danny Vatnik, CTO & Head of R&DDanny Vatnik
CTO & Head of R&D
Personetics
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Tom Pachys, Co-founder & CTO, PlayBuzzTom Pachys
Co-founder & CTO
PlayBuzz
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Amir Kaldor, CTO, RealMatchAmir Kaldor
CTO
RealMatch
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Lior Ash, CTO, SplacerLior Ash
CTO
Splacer
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Yaniv Axen, Co-founder & CTO, SundaySkyYaniv Axen
Co-founder & CTO
SundaySky
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Tamir Klein, CTO, TradAitTamir Klein
CTO
TradAir
Zeev Suraski, Co-founder & CTO, ZendZeev Suraski
Co-founder & CTO
Zend
CTO Top Tips SummaryCheck out the mega-summary of all the CTOs’ Top Tips

Dr. Gadi Solotorevsky

Dr. Gadi Solotorevsky, CTO at cVidya
Dr. Gadi Solotorevsky, CTO @ cVidya
cVidya logo
cVidya is a leading supplier of Revenue Analytics solutions to communications and digital service providers. cVidya’s big data technology platform and analytical applications enable operators to optimize profits and enhance decision-making.


Q. What is the most important advice you would give to a newly appointed CTO of a startup company?
A. My advice is simple: Keep an open mind and stay focused. As a newly-appointed CTO of a startup company, you probably already have a clear vision of what to do and how to do it, but you will almost certainly face a great deal of feedback and contradictory ideas from your employees, from the market, from your competitors and from your VCs. Listen to all of them and use them to challenge your vision, improve it and even to change it if appropriate, but don’t let it confuse you. You must stay focused and learn not to allow every new opinion or piece of information to alter your path. My advice is to find the right balance between the two (even though it can be tricky!).

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Itay Milrad

Itay Milrad, CTO, ironSource
Itay Milrad, CTO @ ironSource
ironSource logo
ironSource is the world leading platform for software discovery, distribution and delivery across platforms and devices that leverages advanced segmentation and targeting algorithms to provide the right content to the right people at the right time.


Q. What is the most important advice you would give to a newly appointed CTO of a startup company?
A. If you’re a newly-appointed CTO, then get ready to be busy! As the CTO it’s your job to know everything about the technologies related to your company’s services and products and navigate the company direction in terms of projects, development and tools. It also means that you no longer have the luxury of solving every little problem yourself. Instead, you have to solve the bigger problem of making other people solve problems better and faster. You will likely manage multiple teams working on diverse projects, and that can be quite a challenge for someone who is wired to go in and solve problems themselves.

At ironSource, we have dedicated people who tirelessly research, test and experiment with cutting-edge technologies related to our core business, and their input helps me make educated decisions on how to proceed when we face a technical challenge or need to expedite a release of new projects.So my best tip for helping you and your engineers work better is to create an in-company developer network to nurture communication and collaboration among the teams and of course, with you.

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Michael Schuldenfrei

Michael Schuldenfrei, CTO, Optimal+
Michael Schuldenfrei, CTO @ Optimal+
Optimal+ logo
Optimal+ manufactures intelligence that impacts both real-time decision making and long range planning, delivering measurable bottom-line results for semiconductor companies large and small.


Q. What is the most important advice you would give to a newly appointed CTO of a startup company?
A. One of the problems facing a new CTO is making critical technology selections that are difficult or impossible to change in the future. A few years ago, there were relatively few base technologies that most software solutions were based on. Microsoft or Java for code platform; SQL Server, Oracle or MySQL for database; thick or thin client for UI. Many CTOs would stick with the technologies they knew.

Recently, there has been an explosion of technologies and platforms: databases, NoSQL, analytic platforms, Hadoop, etc.

I would advise any CTO to invest significant time and resources in technology selection. One approach is to identify partners with broad experience who can help with the selection by analyzing your requirements and picking the best tools for the task. Make sure that you closely evaluate each solution before committing and don’t rely just on your previous experience. Remember that most technologies evolve over time and something you may have dismissed in the past may be relevant today.

Also, take care when selecting core technologies and include criteria such as the stability and viability of the company that’s providing the technology as well as their ability to support it.

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Yuval Ben-Itzhak

Yuval Ben-Itzhak, CTO, Outbrain
Yuval Ben-Itzhak, CTO @ Outbrain
Outbrain logo
Outbrain helps people discover content that they can trust to be interesting, relevant and timely for them. It’s content discovery platform is the world’s largest, reaching more than a half billion people globally each month.


Q. What is the most important advice you would give to a newly appointed CTO of a startup company?
A. Being a CTO in a young, technology-rich, startup comes with important responsibilities. While many people confuse the role of a CTO with the role of VP R&D, the business needs both of them in the long run. As a CTO you will need to make important decisions about the product development and direction. For example, your Sales team will usually ask for features that they can sell in the next quarter or two while your VP of Sales asks you for products that his/her team can sell in the next 12 months, so as a CTO, you should always ask yourself what will be needed “in the horizon” even beyond that:

bullet-pink-20x10What technologies should your team use to develop your product?
bullet-pink-20x10What technologies should your product introduce to respond to a future customer need?
bullet-pink-20x10What would be the business value of such new technologies to your customers?

Being a CTO in a startup is about being the technology leader for your product, team and customers.

Back to the Top


Noam Oren

Noam Oren, Chief R&D Officer, Payoneer
Noam Oren, Chief R&D Officer @ Payoneer
Payoneer logo
Payoneer empowers global commerce by connecting businesses, professionals, countries and currencies with its innovative cross-border payments platform.


Q. What is the most important advice you would give to a newly appointed CTO of a startup company?
A. When you first start out as a CTO, you will be told to “get the best people”. And it’s true, it’s all about the people, but only if they are the RIGHT people. What you need to do it look for people who are professional (in relation to your needs), smart, and who “get things done”. Your core team should provide vision, technology, business commitment and delivery.

Try to find people who complete you in areas that you’re lacking. For example, are you very techy? Then bring on board a strong delivery person. Are you strong in development? Then get a person who will drive your testing-automation and platform. The only qualities you should look for in a potential team member that resemble you closely – are behavior and values. It’s easy to manage situations involving technical differences and arguments but it’s very difficult to build something with people who do not share common human values. Arguments that stem from deep differences in underlying values are hard to manage, difficult to overcome and lead to increased frustration and inefficiency.

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Yoram Mizrachi

Yoram Mizrachi, CTO & Co-founder, Perfecto Mobile
Yoram Mizrachi, CTO & Co-founder @ Perfecto Mobile
Perfecto Mobile logo
Perfecto Mobile offers The Continuous Quality Lab, an on-demand infrastructure that enables the testing of mobile apps under any real-world end-user condition throughout all stages of the SDLC without compromising quality.


Q. What is the most important advice you would give to a newly appointed CTO of a startup company?
A. As a CTO, you should consider the following:
1. Be forward thinking. Don’t just think about what you’re doing right now, but about what you’re likely to be doing in a year, 2 years and beyond. “Tactical” always kills “Strategy” and you need to keep your company strategic.

2. You are the CTO, not the VP R&D, so you need to respect that person enough to allow them to make their own mistakes.

3. You need to question things all the time. Keep the discussion open on everything and question anything. Your role is to make sure that the company always delivers the best technical solution to a given problem.

4. You are the technical bridge between the field and the R&D. You should understand the requirements on one hand (that’s product management part) and the implementation on the other hand (that’s the R&D part) and provide the right answer to the field based on your understanding of the big picture which includes both the product requirements and R&D implementation considerations.

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Danny Vatnik

Danny Vatnik, CTO & Head of R&D
Danny Vatnik, CTO & Head of R&D @ Personetics
Personetics logo
Personetics enables banks to anticipate individual needs and provide the guidance today’s customers want, deserve, and increasingly expect.


Q. What is the most important advice you would give to a newly appointed CTO of a startup company?
A. My advice to a newly appointed CTO is to keep things simple. The problems you’re going to face are complex enough, so don’t make things worse by getting bogged down with complex solutions. When a CTO says ‘no’ to the next great business idea, it’s often because complexity makes the required change impractical. Complexity is like a cancer, it grows exponentially and if you are not careful, eventually any required change will become a source of great pain. Aim to prioritize simplicity and help your team to focus on understanding problems: What concepts exist, which are stable, and which features do you really need. Don’t be content until the most appropriate, simple solution presents itself. In fact, aiming for simplicity is a great mantra in general, whether it’s in relation to your thoughts, designs or your relationship with people.

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Tom Pachys

Tom Pachys, Co-founder & CTO, PlayBuzz
Tom Pachys, Co-founder & CTO @ PlayBuzz
PlayBuzz logo
Playbuzz enables publishers, bloggers and brands to engage users, increase web traffic and reach an audience of millions via free authoring and embedding of Playful Content.


Q. What is the most important advice you would give to a newly appointed CTO of a startup company?
A. There are 2 tips I’d like to share that I think first-time CTOs can really benefit from:

1. Build now for NOW and later for LATER.
In early stage startups you need to aim for immediate results. In most cases, “the future” is far from what you or anyone else can forecast, so sacrificing scarce resources to meet a strenuous deadline for the sake of better support at some point in a future filled with unknowns – would in most cases be a total waste. Instead, you should focus on perfecting the challenge of building the most logical solutions for NOW. This way, you will be better able to cope with whatever challenges come your way in the future, whether you predicted the future early on correctly or not.

2. Synergy between product and tech.
Don’t create an artificial separation between your Tech and Product teams. In many cases small product adjustments can make a big impact on development time, so the collaboration of Tech and Product can yield smarter solutions that are faster to develop and test. Tension between Product and Tech teams usually aren’t helpful in coming up with a better solution. Product should learn to work with constraints and Tech should be highly involved with whatever they’re building so that they are better able to find creative solutions and/or alternatives.

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Amir Kaldor

Amir Kaldor, CTO, RealMatch
Amir Kaldor, CTO @ RealMatch
RealMatch logo
RealMatch helps digital publishers earn more from recruitment advertising with the most advanced, high-performance recruitment advertising solution available that connects job seekers and employers in a whole new way.


Q. What is the most important advice you would give to a newly appointed CTO of a startup company?
A. I could write a whole post about advice I would offer an aspiring of first-time CTO but for the purpose of this roundup post, here are just a few of them:

1. Don’t spend too much time on scaling plans early on: Have a general idea of what you will do when the time comes to support millions of users, but don’t invest too much time on it early on, because it will most likely be irrelevant by the time you actually need to do it. For example, I still have a detailed scaling plan I performed 7 years ago which is totally obsolete now, but which was revolutionary back in 2007!

2. Avoid outsourcing important tasks to random developers. There are some general or simple but time-consuming tasks that are okay to outsource, but when it comes to really important tasks, avoid the temptation to outsource to offshore developers, or “work from home” geniuses, or “wiz kid” programmers that are friends of friends or relatives. They will not be there for you when you are in trouble and you will never have the time to go over their code and fix it.

3. UI first: Don’t develop technology and only then think about how it can be sold. Think about what the users want right from the beginning and focus on delivering exactly that.

4. QA automation: As soon as you finish developing the purchase flow, create an automation to check that it works and run it every day. This is FAR more preferable to having the CEO and CFO coming to your office with steam coming out of their ears wanting to know why the purchase flow is broken.

5. “Hey did you hear about this new cool library, IDoItAllInOne.js?”
Many technologies start out seeming magical and attracting lots of buzz, only to fall into obscurity until eventually no one even remembers them. That’s not the type of technology you want to get stuck with for many years on a legacy system, never having the bandwidth to replace it. Choose the technologies you want to work with only after they have proven to be the market leaders.

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Lior Ash

Lior Ash, CTO, Splacer
Lior Ash, CTO @ Splacer
Splacer logo
Splacer is an online platform and marketplace for people to instantly list, discover, and book short-term spaces to create unique event experiences.


Q. What is the most important advice you would give to a newly appointed CTO of a startup company?
A. If you’re one of the lucky few who get the chance to experience the rough, living-on-the-edge journey that’s the creation of a customer service, B2C oriented startup, then the most important advice I can give you is that technology is not important (I know, it’s strange coming from a CTO).

What is important, is speed, a working product, marketing and sales infrastructure, and very importantly – BI. Why? Because you’re responsible for the glue that connects all departments together – the product. If it’s ready on time, working well, and has the right infrastructures to support your marketing and sales efforts – you’ve done your part. You will not reach this by spending time on “the best architecture”, “the most secure and scalable database” or “the greatest programing language of all”. Throughout the life of a successful startup, technology is usually replaced anyway, databases rise and fall, and architecture changes all the time.

So what you should do, is:
bullet-pink-20x10Choose your development stack quickly
bullet-pink-20x10Always opt for re-usable code and services rather than develop them yourself
bullet-pink-20x10Use paid external services whenever relevant to save time or to allow you to concentrate on other things
bullet-pink-20x10Make sure that you embed marketing technologies
bullet-pink-20x10Nail your BI infrastructure.
bullet-pink-20x10And finally, be lean and mean, and don’t forget to enjoy the ride!

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Yaniv Axen

Yaniv Axen, Co-founder & CTO, SundaySky
Yaniv Axen, Co-founder & CTO @ SundaySky
SumdaySky logo
SundaySky’s personalized video marketing platform, SmartVideo Cloud, enables brands to deliver scalable one-to-one video experiences at each stage of the customer lifecycle, fostering long-term customer relationships.


Q. What is the most important advice you would give to a newly appointed CTO of a startup company?
A. There’s a famous saying about the fact that every technology company relies on 3 pillars for its success: Product, People and Process. As the CTO of the company, you should care about all three.

bullet-pink-20x10Product: The CTO should lead the long term vision of the product, look at the market and understand where it’s going, and analyse what the competition is up to in order to help define the future technological direction of the company.

bullet-pink-20x10People: In my opinion, the CTO should be the lighthouse for attracting the best technological talent to the company. The CTO should be a thought leader and a professional go-to-guy to offer suggestions on the best course of action for every technological challenge the company faces.

bullet-pink-20x10Process: Innovation is not a ‘one off’ incident and it’s the CTOs job to encourage ongoing innovation. The CTO should be the leader of exploration and research of new directions for the company.

Back to the Top


Tamir Klein

Tamir Klein, CTO, TradAit
Tamir Klein, CTO @ TradAir
TradAir logo
TradAir is a leading provider of front office optimization solutions designed to offer financial institutions the ability to create new revenue layers and reduce costs, while enhancing and creating new client relationships.


Q. What is the most important advice you would give to a newly appointed CTO of a startup company?

A.
A couple of things I think that first-time CTOs would benefit from relate to system support and automatic testing:

1. System Support: When building new products, you’d do well to rely on log files and other server side solutions. At TradAir this helps us to understand what is happening in our product. Try to start your app with a core event log and visual configuration option (preferably GUI). This will save you a lot of time and effort a lot sooner than you’d think.

2. Automatic Testing: Define your QA philosophy from day one, and select an automated system that best fits your need. Automating QA will enable your product to grow safely and steadily, and it will be especially valuable when doing major changes. Also, automatic testing allows you to gain knowledge of your product from a perspective that’s different from that of the product team, and this added understanding of the product will be invaluable to its development as the company grows.

Back to the Top


Zeev Suraski

Zeev Suraski, Co-founder & CTO, Zend
Zeev Suraski, Co-founder & CTO @ Zend
Zend logo
Zend – the PHP company – provides an end-to-end solution for rapid delivery and improved application quality by using Zend Server, a platform for continuous Delivery of PHP applications.


Q. What is the most important advice you would give to a newly appointed CTO of a startup company?
A. For every server you have on-premise, you should ask yourself whether it’s necessary, and whether it’s having a negative impact on Agility.
At Zend, we have eliminated a big part of our on-premise server, gradually moving more and more of our services to the cloud. It’s important to note that this doesn’t only apply to using SaaS based services where possible (which is advisable anyway), we also moved our on-prem QA lab to the cloud after finding that server downtime and lack of ability to scale was slowing us down. While moving to the cloud was not the cheapest option, it was – and still is – the most flexible and agile one.

Back to the Top


CTO Tip Summary

The mega-summary of all the experienced startup CTOs’ top tips for aspiring and first-time CTOs:

1. Keep an open mind and stay focused. Accept the multitude of feedback and advice that comes your way, but don’t let it confuse you. Learn to filter and apply it in a way that keeps you moving forward in the best possible way in order to achieve your and the company’s goals.

2. Learn to delegate. As a CTO you will likely manage multiple teams working on diverse projects, so you must learn to delegate. Create an in-company developer network to nurture communication and collaboration among the teams and of course, with you.

3. Invest significant time and resources in technology selection.
Consult partners with broad experience who can help with the selection by analyzing your requirements and picking the best tools for the task.
Make sure that you closely evaluate each solution before committing and don’t rely just on your previous experience.
Consider criteria such as the stability and viability of the company that’s providing the technology as well as their ability to support it.

4. Learn to prioritize product requirements both for immediate and long-term benefits. Sometimes you may receive conflicting requests from different departments in the company based on different priorities. You must evaluate what is the best course to pursue for the benefit of the company not just right now, but into the future, by considering things like:

bullet-pink-20x10What technologies should your team use to develop your product?
bullet-pink-20x10What technologies should your product introduce to respond to a future customer need?
bullet-pink-20x10What would be the business value of such new technologies to your customers?

5. Learn to hire the best possible people for the job. Look for professional, smart, people who “get things done” and try to find people who complete you in areas that you’re lacking, but who are similar to you when it comes to culture and values.

6. Be forward thinking. Don’t just think about what you’re doing right now, but about what you’re likely to be doing in a year, 2 years and beyond. “Tactical” always kills “Strategy” and you need to keep your company strategic.

7. Respect the VP R&D enough to allow them to make their own mistakes.

8. Question things all the time. Keep the discussion open on everything and question anything. Your role is to make sure that the company always delivers the best technical solution to a given problem.

9. Be the technical bridge between the rest of the company’s departments and the R&D. Provide solutions based on your understanding of the big picture, which includes both the product requirements and R&D implementation considerations.

10. Keep things simple and avoid getting bogged down with complex solutions. If a business idea or requirement is too complicated to be practical, don’t do it unless you can find a way to simplify it enough that it doesn’t come back to haunt you when changes are required in the future.

11. Build now for NOW and later for LATER. In early stage startups you need to aim for immediate results so sacrificing scarce resources to meet a strenuous deadline for the sake of something that will only become relevant in the future is a waste. Obviously if you’re developing something for which you need to lay down important groundwork for the future, then you should do it, but otherwise, learn to prioritize the solutions you need right now.

12. Don’t spend too much time on scaling plans early on. Have a general idea of what you will do when the time comes to support millions of users, but don’t invest too much time on it early on, because it will most likely be irrelevant by the time you actually need to do it.

13. Avoid outsourcing important tasks to random developers. They will not be there for you when you are in trouble and you will never have the time to go over their code and fix it.

14. UI first: Think about what the users want right from the beginning and focus on delivering exactly that before you start developing the technology.

15. QA automation: As soon as you finish developing a flow (for example a purchase flow), create an automation to check that it works and run it every day.

16. Don’t fall for flashy new technologies just because of buzz. Choose the technologies you want to work with only after they have proven to be the market leaders. You don’t want to get stuck with a technology that didn’t live out to its promises on a legacy system with no bandwidth to replace it.

17. If you’re a CTO at a customer service, B2C oriented startup, then in most cases the technology is not important. During the life of the startup it will most likely be replaced anyway. What’s important, is speed, a working product, marketing and sales infrastructure, and a good BI, so:
Choose your development stack quickly
bullet-pink-20x10Opt for re-usable code and services rather than develop them yourself
bullet-pink-20x10Use paid external services whenever relevant to save time or to allow you to concentrate on other things
bullet-pink-20x10Embed marketing technologies

18. As the CTO of the company, you should care about Product, People and Process.
bullet-pink-20x10Product:
Lead the long term vision of the product, understand where the market is going, and analyse competitors to in order to help define the future technological direction of the company.
bullet-pink-20x10People: Be the “lighthouse” that attracts the best technological talent to the company. Try to become a thought leader and the go-to-guy that everyone consults for every technological challenge the company faces.
bullet-pink-20x10Process: Prioritize innovation. Be the leader of exploration and research of new directions for the company.

19. System Support: Learn to work with log files and other server side solutions to help you understand what’s happening with your product. Try to start your app with a core event log and visual configuration option (preferably GUI). This will save you a lot of time and effort a lot sooner than you’d think.

20. Automatic Testing: Define your QA philosophy from day one, and select an automated system that best fits your need to enable your product to grow safely and steadily, and to gain a perspective that’s different from that of the product team.

21. For every server you have on-premise, you should ask yourself whether it’s necessary, and whether it’s having a negative impact on Agility. Moving your services to the cloud will help combat things like server downtime and scaling constraints. While moving to the cloud may not be the cheapest option, it is the most flexible and agile one.

22. And finally, be lean and mean, and don’t forget to enjoy the ride!

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13 experienced startup CTOs offer their top tips to first-time CTOs

Comments
  • Daniel

    Really compelling information from some of the most respected CTOs around. It sounds like CTOs share a lot of the same concerns as other C-levels in ‘softer’ areas. Need to be able to manage the managers, and trust that they can make the right decisions on their own.

    • I think that’s spot on Daniel. Glad you enjoyed the post!

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