How to become a CTO?

27 April 2024 ยท Updated 27 April 2024

Hey Vadim,

Long-time reader, enjoy your content a lot. I've been a software engineer for about seven years now, doing mostly web development and taking over ownership of different modules step by step, expanding my people skills so to speak. Lately, I've been doing some thinking (maybe too much!) about where I'm headed professionally, I don't want to be a software engineer forever. I mean, I love coding, solving problems, seeing my code come to life โ€” but what's next?

I've noticed that a few of my senior colleagues have moved into other companies for more strategic roles: VPs, Directors, Eng. Managers and the idea of becoming a CTO or at least a VP has started to look really tempting. Some of my friends are doing their own startups, so I'm in this tech bubble where everyone is moving to the top, and I'm not sure where I should be going? I get that being a CTO is not just about the code, and I am polishing my people skills as mentioned earlier. But I feel lost, how do I become one? Can you maybe elaborate your journey a bit?

And then a more general question: How do I make the leap from being a senior software engineer to a CTO? What skills should I be focusing on right now, is there a career path or is it more of a 'forge your own way' type of deal?

Honestly, any advice from your experience would be super helpful.

Thanks a lot in advance!

Edward S.


Thanks for reaching out. It’s great to hear from you, and I’m thrilled that youโ€™re considering a path towards becoming a CTO. Having spent a good part of the last decade doing exactly that, I can certainly share some of my personal insights that might help you on your journey.

My journey is quite unique I would say, even lucky, depending on how you look at it โ€” I got promoted from a senior developer to Head of Development Department because the previous Head had a disagreement with the Management and I pushed very hard to take his place. I think I had 5 many-hour-long meetings to convince everyone I can take on the responsibility. It wasn’t easy, but I still think that I got lucky, as I was in the right moment at the right place, just needed a bit push.

After that I started learning a lot, I felt out of place and didn’t really know what to do, as I was always a dev, so it took me quite a bit of time to really understand what I needed to be doing. I got lucky the second time when I met my future business partners and we decided to do our own thing where I took over the technical leadership. So, not sure how much it’s replicable, but I can at least help you shape your career so you have more lucky chances like I did.

Let’s start with the role of a CTO. As youโ€™ve rightly guessed, it transcends deep tech skills. You can be a god-coder, but it’s quite useless unless you’re building your own product. Don’t misunderstand, you need to have a robust technological foundation, but it also requires you to inspire, foresee, and innovate. Itโ€™s a role where your decisions donโ€™t just affect immediate tech choices but also shape the companyโ€™s future.

โœ… Remember one thing โ€” the job of a CTO is to build People Systems that build other Systems, without any direct involvement.

You mentioned that youโ€™ve been working on your people skills, which is excellent. Leading effectively means mentoring your teams, resolving conflicts, and most importantly, building a culture that aligns with both your personal and organizational values.

To start preparing yourself for becoming a CTO, in your current role, continue to seek out projects that challenge you to make strategic decisions, take over more and more responsibilities, learn to deal with accountability, learn to deal with pressure. These experiences are invaluable as they provide a glimpse into what it takes to align tech initiatives with business goals โ€” a critical skill for any CTO.

Having a more formal education will be a plus. While your background in web development sets you up nicely for the job, consider exploring further education, or just watch youtube videos about dealing with people issues. These not only broaden your understanding but also enhance your credibility in the field. If something happens โ€” you already know how to act.

Now, about your path from where you are to where you want to be. Most CTOs donโ€™t follow a linear path. It involves serendipitous opportunities. Since youโ€™re already in a senior role, start looking for opportunities to take on more responsibility OUTSIDE of your job. This could mean leading larger projects where you communicate with other vendors, working with other companies, involving yourself in strategic planning meetings with people from different domains, or even proposing new initiatives yourself that will involve different companies. The goal of this is to expand your credibility beyond your company. People need to know about you.

CTO jobs are not something you can usually apply for. Even if you see an open position, highly likely they’re doing that to satisfy the governance โ€” the candidate has already been selected and is already on the latest phases of hiring. Though there are quite a few executive searches, that start before the job ad goes live โ€” it’s still a very silent process. People call others for references and people get recommended, it’s not the same as applying for a senior developer position.

Networking is your next best friend. The tech world is surprisingly small, and the more you engage with it, the more opportunities will come your way. As I said above โ€” people need to know about you. Start attending industry conferences, tech meetups, and seminars outside of your job, or start organizing inside your company, but invite external speakers. Join professional groups online and off. These connections will be your greatest allies, providing you with mentorship opportunities and insights into how other tech leaders go about their careers.

Speaking of mentorship, find someone locally who’s where you want to be. This person can guide you through the complexities of tech leadership, offering advice from a place of experience over a cup of coffee. Having a mentor is great, I have one, and I always enjoy having coffee with him and discussing my professional life and where I need to go etc. A good mentor can also introduce you to other influencers in the industry, opening doors to opportunities that might otherwise be out of reach.

Other ways you can become seen is by building your personal brand. Start a tech blog or contribute to open-source projects. It’s more of a long term game. In my case I’ve been doing it for 3 years now, and only the last year have started getting good referrals from the blog. Before that it was very silent. If you write well, these activities put you on the radar of those who could play a pivotal role in your career advancement.

โœ… CTO Salary varies greatly based on the country where the company is, the funding status, the profits, the value that you're bringing and other subjective factors e.g. how much other shareholders like you.

Before we wrap this up, let me give you some advice in terms of what you should expect in terms of salary of a CTO. It varies quite a bit. If you join some established company it can start from 500’000 USD, if you join some pre-seed startup it can go as low as 50’000 USD. It all depends on a) how much risk you’re willing to take on and b) how much value you’re bringing. And the value is not the coding skills. There will be quite a bit of negotiating before you join any company as a CTO, get ready for that and get good at that.

Lastly, balance is key, it is a very stressful job. The demands of tech leadership are high, but so should be your commitment to maintaining a work-life balance. Burnout is real and can derail the most promising careers. Find time for yourself, your hobbies, and your loved ones. Your well-being is as important as your professional achievements. Don’t overlook it and really think hard if becoming a CTO is the right career path for you.

Feel free to reach out anytime. Iโ€™m here to help, and I look forward to hearing about your progress.

Enjoy the journey.

Hot! The last couple of years I've been writing about CTO / Tech lead job. I've compiled all my knowledge into a printable PDF. I called it "256 Pages of No Bullshit Guide for CTOs". So if you're interested, take a look.

New! If you're a software engineer looking for a job, I started a Roast my Resume service, where I record a personalized video of me "roasting" your CV, which basically means taking a hard look at your resume as a CTO and commenting on all the good and the bad parts.