The CTO will need to fix that

Published on October 27, 2022

startups scaling management

3 min read

“The CTO will need to fix that.” This phrase should reflexively cause a reaction.

I’m not saying it will always be a red flag if the CTO* is the only person who can fix something, but I think it should at least prompt a moment of reflection.

* While I’m using the CTO as an example, this really applies in principle to any one person.

Maybe it’s OK

Very early on in a startup a few unique situations can arise. Perhaps the CTO is the only technical person at the company. Or perhaps technical staff were hired so recently that the CTO has not yet ramped them up on this specific topic.

Those are legitimate scenarios. However, I’d suggest they still deserve a yellow flag. You’ve uncovered something that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

There are other scenarios where you need the CTO to do something that is specific to the role of CTO. For example, Sales may need the CTO to meet with a key prospect to close a deal. That’s not what we’re talking about here.

But it’s probably not OK

What’s the big deal? Perhaps the CTO likes handling these types of challenges. In fact, that may be why this scenario exists. I bet most of us are less likely to hand off a responsibility we really enjoy doing ourself.

So again, what’s the big deal? Here’s the five angles I’d consider.

  1. Culture smell.
    Consciously or not, and for varying reasons (e.g. ego, insecurity), some CTOs encourage this sense of dependence. In other cases, people have decided they don’t trust the staff in the Product/Engineering org. Or, as a final example, the staff in the Product/Engineering org feel unsupported to take on such challenges. Any of these scenarios indicate underlying culture issues.

    [Credits MPS & CJ]

  2. Business continuity.
    We don’t need to consider anything as grim as the bus factor. Let’s take the cheerier topic of vacation. If any day-to-day operational task requires one specific person to handle it, how can that person ever take vacation? Everyone deserves a distraction-free vacation. Even the CTO.

    But also, seriously, the bus factor. Unexpected things happen unexpectedly.

  3. Team morale.
    If it wasn’t for whatever reason the CTO needs to handle this situation, who would normally handle it? You likely hired smart people to solve challenging problems. In my experience, when those individuals are unable to do their job and have to call in the CTO, this contributes towards frustration. This compounds if it happens with frequency. Even more so if for the same issue.

    Instead, this can be an excellent training opportunity. Level up those around you.

  4. Product smell.
    If some part of the product is so something that only the CTO can fix it, that should prompt questions like: What is that something? Is it insufficient documentation? Is that part of the product especially fragile or riddled with technical debt?

    If it can be fixed, and it almost certainly can be, then it should be.

  5. Missed opportunity.
    If in fact the domain you are working in is so complex or custom that the above identified something cannot be addressed in product but instead requires highly specialized hands-on work, perhaps it represents an opportunity. This sounds a lot like Professional Services, which may very well be billable.

So the next time you hear, “Only so-and-so can fix that”, please take a moment to reflect. Why is that the case and what can be done to improve the situation?

Credits and Thanks