The Bullshitting CTO – advice for non-technical founders

Posted: June 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

I was chatting with another startup founder recently who was talking a conversation he had with his CTO and what the CTO had told him about a recent issue with their site. Some data had been lost from the site and the CTO apparently immediately started putting blame on some unknown “user error” as the cause of the unknown glitch. This is despite the fact that there didn’t seem to be any relevant connection between any of the functionality on the admin backend and the data loss that had occurred. Fortunately, there were backups and the data was able to be restored, so no real harm done (aside from frustration and lost time). However, what was more interesting was that the situation was apparently only one instance of many similar conversation – strange technology issues occur and the CTO has no clear explanation for what happened.

Startup founders, especially those with no technology background, if this happens to you – stop. Stop letting your CTO get away with providing vague explanations for what happened. Stop letting the CTO off the hook. Everyone who uses a computer knows that technology doesn’t always work right. Startups are, more often than not, dealing with a combination of bleeding edge platforms, compressed time schedules, and lack of sleep – a cocktail that can be exciting, but results in a higher than average percentage of software bugs.

The issue is not the bugs. They are expected. Any founder who expects a system to be bug free is dreaming. The issue is a CTO who can’t explain the issues that occurred, or, more likely, doesn’t want to take responsibility for the issues. And even more importantly, the implications that this has for the technology side of your business.

Founders with no technical experience are in a difficult position in startup world. So much of a startup’s life is centered around the technology. As the company moves from customer development to product development, for someone who doesn’t understand the tech, the startup world becomes a wild roller-coaster ride with the CTO in the drivers’ seat. Make no mistake – you are more or less at the mercy of your tech co-founder if you don’t understand the tech, so you had better pick a good one.

A good way to look at this is what if your CTO walks away – do you know how to access the code, how the architecture is setup, how to get into the various administration tools, how to access the backups? Ideally, the question is yes to all of the above, but startup world is chaotic. New systems are being added, servers are reconfigured – change is ever present. Are you up to speed on stuff?

So, what’s the point? The point is – if your CTO can’t take responsibility for a tech issue that occurs, if she won’t walk you through what caused the issue, if he doesn’t do a root cause assessment and explain the results – then you are living on the edge. If your CTO can’t own up to one issue, how much other stuff is going on that you have no idea about?

Let’s be very clear – if you are in this situation, then you have a relationship with your CTO where the balance of power is skewed and the wellbeing of your company is at risk. You need to get clarity into what’s going on over on the tech side and restore the balance of power, and more importantly, rebalance your relationship where you’re getting truthful explanations from your CTO. Or find a new one. Heed the warning signs and protect the company.