Daniel Doubrovkine bio photo

Daniel Doubrovkine

aka dB., CTO at artsy.net, fun at playplay.io, NYC

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I now have an executive coach. I wish he just told me what to do, but we pay him a lot of money not to, which means I have to figure it out by myself. So I turned to my personal network and asked the following question.

You’re a CTO, what do you do?

Nobody gave me a list! A lot of replies described what not to do. Some emphasized the difference between a CTO and a VP or Head of Engineering, but I thought I already had that nailed down reasonably well.

A company has many possible successful outcomes. Organizations iterate and find a business by trial and error. The job of a CTO is to continuously ensure that all possible outcomes are enabled with technology, while the job of a VP or Head of Engineering is to execute on the outcome currently chosen.

So how do I find out what I should be doing every day? What is it that I actually do?

I decided to apply test-driven development to this problem.

shared_examples "is worthy of dB's time" do
  it 'is aligned with core values'
  it 'gets the company closer to its vision'
  it 'helps achieve the company mission in a big way'
  it 'has company-wide scope'
  it 'has long term impact'
  it 'has large scale impact'
  it 'is strategic'
  it 'is not mired in small details'
  it 'has a clearly defined outcome'
  it 'has a measurable outcome'
  # what else?
end

How do I find something to apply these tests to?

Lets begin with a hypothesis.

Technology is not just a tool, it’s also an opportunity.

So my job is to balance envisioning where the company’s technology needs to go with creating technology that enables everyone at the company to meet their business goals. It’s a combination of making new things possible and supporting existing projects. Technology also can’t exist without people, and it has no purpose without a business.

This yields three clear priorities: people, technology and business.

  • Technology is built by people, therefore my job is to help attract and retain the best people and to create a culture where they do their best work.
  • Technology is a unique multiplier, therefore my job is to build technology that makes big things possible.
  • Technology helps the business grow, therefore my job is to drive the highest ROI on technology.

I now have priorities and a test to check against everything I do. This is definitely something I can work with!

My first actual work item was to reach out to team leads and ask: What can I do for you?

Team Leads (on the bcc),

This is one of those broad self-searching quests, brace yourselves :)

I have been watching our increasingly strong Engineering team and am so happy to see it be totally self-sufficient and autonomous and really driving the company forward when it comes to software delivery, technology, etc. I am also excited about a newly forming product organization.

I am a bit less needed around day-to-day code things, which probably means we’re on the right track! And I have the luxury of having a bit more time to focus on new things, and am in a really privileged place where I know the company inside-out. I have a strong feeling that there’re a lot of things I could be doing as CTO that I am not doing today that could make your job a lot easier. It could be meeting with customers, or something else, I want to find out! Two questions:

  • What are the outcomes you are looking to achieve in your position in 2015?
  • For any such outcome, is there anything I can do to help you achieve it?

Thanks!

I applied my test to actively learning about other team’s concrete goals and outcomes and it passed. It’s medium to long term, strategic and aims at company-wide impact. It is also something very measurable: do I know, at all times, what each team’s goals are? Am I following up on the asks from these teams with Engineering team leads? Are they acting on them?

The final step is to create a repeatable process around this. I already have 1:1s with every member of the Engineering team and am now working on scheduling 1:1s with every team lead at least once every six months. I am helping with our quarterly all-hands in order to ensure that each team has an opportunity to communicate their goals and priorities to other teams. Finally, I regularly, gently and quietly nudge team leads that aren’t so great at communicating their progress to everyone to imitate those who are better at it.

This is one thing I now do.