December 08, 2016
by Leo Papadopoulos

How to Be a CTO in the Age of Digital Disruption (and Live to Tell About It)

There are many ways for for modern CTOs to ensure they’re forging the right path for their team and company. Start by asking the right questions.

Original Article in Network World.

I’ve built my career in a field where trader voice technology has only improved incrementally over the past 40 years. After decades of building legacy technology, my co-founders and I set out to disrupt the industry we had helped build.

Despite years of leading technology teams and large-scale product launches, I was presented with a unique opportunity to start from the ground up. I had to start from scratch with a new set of technology, build a team, create architecture that was future-proof, scalable, secure and compliant, and take on the task of educating our customers and my team about why WebRTC and the Amazon Cloud was the right technology for our stack. It was daunting task, but also a common set of circumstances for a modern startup CTO.

The Building Blocks

In the early days of Cloud9 Technologies, we knew what we wanted to build: a communication technology that eliminated the complexity and hassle of dealing with legacy systems. Our team drew its inspiration from modern communications solutions, that were hosted in the cloud, mobile-first and easy to use—such as WhatsApp. Network World CTO

The challenge was layering in capabilities that could support the deployment of solutions on trading floors and creating technology that could handle the communication complexities of that environment. In addition, the financial services industry is highly regulated, with unique security requirements, strict compliance mandates, and no room for error when it comes to communication. We had to ask ourselves three important questions:

1. What cloud provider do we choose? Will it evolve with us and allow us to scale efficiently?

2. Should we work with a technology stack we are familiar with or attempt something new?

3. How much of the technology will we have to build up versus leveraging an open source technology that we can build on top of?

The CTO as Evangelist

If you’re embarking on a journey to displace incumbent technology, you’ll quickly find yourself in the role of both CTO and evangelist. It is important in terms of driving new technology that both your customers and your developer team view you as a resource and a thought leader.

I’ve spent a lot of time listening and engaging with customers via support calls in the early days, as well as interacting through social media, speaking engagements and sales calls. Developing a sense of trust and understanding between you and your customer helps open them to the possibility of adopting your solution. Also, once you begin to see your product from the perspective of your customers, you’ll be better able to address their needs and bring value.

It’s also important to show off the accomplishments of your team and share how you’re adapting certain technologies to build your product. Early on, we participated in a thought leadership forum with Amazon, discussing why the cloud was ready to handle critical operations such as communication. We chose the technology we’re using for a reason, so it’s important to stand next to other thought leaders and validate your technology story.

We also empower our employees to do the same. It’s important to encourage them to complete new certifications, attend conferences and participate in local meetups. It serves as a great reminder that what they’re doing has impact and meaning on the world outside of the company.

The role of the modern CTO comes with more hats and responsibilities than ever before. But by asking the right questions and setting up the right building blocks for your company, you’ll provide a solid foundation on which to build a successful and scalable product. Use that foundation to empower and promote the accomplishments of your team. By establishing your team as a thought leader, you attract the trust of current and future customers who will support and advocate for your company.

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