Top five tips to carve your career as a CTO

Nir Zuk, founder and CTO at Palo Alto Networks, gives his advice on how to become a successful CTO

Making the step up from being part of the technical team to becoming a CTO of an organisation is perhaps the most daunting step any IT professional can make in their career. However, moving from the development team to the boardroom can be a smooth transition that can benefit the organisation’s focus and productivity.

Moving from the role of principal engineer at Check Point Software Technologies to that of CTO at One Secure, a company which I co-founded, was one of the biggest challenges of my career. It was a steep learning curve and I made plenty of mistakes, but each of them taught me a lesson.

Learning to think like an executive, rather than like an engineer, is perhaps the biggest hurdle. Once you can do that without losing an engineer’s perspective, there is no reason why you can’t be a success.

If I could give my younger self some advice, these would be my top five tips. That’s not to say if you follow them you won’t make any mistakes of your own but at least you can be prepared.

1.    Understand the business – know your product, know your customer

It is essential that you take a holistic view of your company. Not only will you be responsible for the development of your products and services, you will also need to understand your customer’s wants and needs and how they will be marketed to the end user.

In taking this approach, you will design products that cater exactly for your core audience and not waste resources developing features that are surplus to requirements.

2.    Think financially

Although it may be alien territory for you, always be aware of the cost implications of any development decisions. The technician in you may want to spend as much time and resources as possible solve a particular problem. However, as a CTO, before deploying any resources you must be aware of how much you can afford to spend on any development issue and if the overall cost will benefit the end result.

3.    Be prepared to take your first break

You may be coming from a technical background but remember this is a management position. Any CTO position will offer you the chance to develop the key skills required to straddle the divide between technicians and the rest of the organisation. You won’t be the one doing the daily grunt work as before but your technical background will come into play, allowing you to see problems from a technician’s point of view. This perspective will help you to get the best out of your team.

4.    Don’t think of a lack of qualifications as a barrier to you progression

I do not have a degree and don’t think a MBA or any other degree is not essential to become a CTO. The most critical skill set is to know how to drive an idea at conception to a fully polished final product and there are numerous ways this can be achieved.

A strong track record in development and a genuine desire and hunger to succeed can be far more compelling than several letters after your name.

5.    Relationships are key

CTOs require strong interpersonal skills and must also possess the ability to develop good working relationships with a range of stakeholders within the organisation. The role is one that essentially bridges the gap between two distinct groups – technology and business. If you can help create an understanding and respect between both sides, then you must be doing something right.

Please remember these are just some suggestions, not a rule book. Everyone has their own ways of approaching problems and getting a job done – these are just some that have worked for me.

The most important thing though I feel is to keep an open mind and to keep in mind that there are two sides to every coin.

Good luck!