Why the Rockstar developer will kill your startup

I'm a Rockstar!
I’m a Rockstar!

Everywhere you look, a startup (or, in many instances, a man with half-a-plan) is seeking a ‘Rockstar’ developer or ‘Ninja’ to help take their fledgling idea and make it happen. Of course, they can’t pay you in cash, but they will offer a generous equity deal and you’ll proudly wear the prestigious title of CTO.

This is almost always a fatal mistake and will kill your startup. If you are doing this, or even thinking about it, stop right now, thank you very much. You need somebody with the human touch (apologies for the Spice Girls reference).

It’s not unusual to see very small startups consisting of a few people where the co-founders are using grandiose titles. Often we will find a business consisting of a CEO, a CTO and no-one else, and really, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of ambition and aspiration. The reality is though, that unless these individuals have been CxO of a large organisation , then they will lack the skill and experience expected with these monikers. In counterpoint, if they have parachuted in from executive positions in big business, they almost certainly lack a ‘startup mindset’. It sounds like we’re all doomed!

Sometimes I enjoy Doom
Sometimes I enjoy Doom

The CEO knows he needs a CTO for his technology startup because he/she won’t be taken seriously without one, but they also need the product built, and this requirement tends to blind the inexperienced entrepreneur as to what a good CTO will do. We can sum up what you need from a CTO in one succinct sentence:

The Chief Technology Officer is responsible for ensuring the organisation’s technical strategy is aligned with its business objectives.

That is it! Nothing about being a full stack developer; nothing about being able to show an array of Github projects; nothing about experience in AI and machine learning; and nothing hinting at groupies or guitars, shurikens or shaolin.

There is nothing wrong with wanting a skilled software engineer on board to own the product development, but it is important to understand that a lead developer is not a CTO and that the skill sets required to excel at each role are different, albeit overlapping.

If the person you are looking for describes themselves as Rockstar or Ninja they are not the right person to hold a strategic role at your company. Similarly, if you think that’s the sort of person you are looking for, you need to examine the factors that are most critical to the success of your business (as it’s not about building the best product known to man in the shortest amount of time).

Lead Developers can grow the necessary skills to progress into a CTO position providing they understand that the role looks far more like that of a Manager than that of a Programmer. But if your business is not making the right strategic decisions from day one, especially when it comes to the technology roadmap, then you’ll be heading for a whole world of pain. If your co-founder doesn’t have what it takes to step up to this strategic role then at some point they will need to be replaced or someone else will need to be promoted ahead of them. The fall out that would likely follow from such a decision would undoubtedly jeopardise any future the business may have.

So when seeking a technical co-founder, remember that their judgement, experience and ability to adapt to fluid situations is worth far more to your business than their familiarity with the latest trend in JavaScript frameworks.

Image supplied under a creative commons licence by Billy Gast and Alec Wilson.

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