Hiring a CTO


What qualities should you look for when you hire a CTO for your business? What are the standard qualifications, and what will the candidates expect when it comes to salary and benefits? Most importantly, should you rely on the usual recruitment tools to find a CTO, or does a higher-level position require outside assistance? Let’s take a look.


Hiring a CTO: A Quick Overview

When hiring a CTO, you should keep the following criteria in mind:

  • Background—The ideal candidate will have a strong and dynamic work history
  • Knowledge of trends—The main role of the CTO is to help the company stay on top of the latest technological advances
  • Versatility—They should be able to take on projects that aren’t necessarily covered in the job description
  • People Skills—Heading a strong team requires solid communication skills and a motivational attitude

What Is a CTO?

CTO stands for Chief Technology Officer or Chief Technical Officer. The perfect candidate will be responsible for the company’s ongoing technology acceleration. As part of this, they build the technology strategy that enables the company to scale.

In some companies, the CTO is referred to as the VP of Engineering (VPE). The common distinction between the two roles is that a CTO is the technical visionary working on an overarching strategy for the company, while the VPE delivers on this strategy, implementing and executing necessary steps towards it. Both roles are part of a company’s core leadership team. 

Growth and innovation of a business hinge on more than highly skilled individuals, it also greatly depends on the communication in and outside the leadership team. Creating and sharing a compelling vision for the company’s short and long term goals and basing decisions on it informs the executive team and subsequently the people tasked with implementing these decisions.   

Consequently, the CTO has to have comprehensive knowledge of the business beyond the technological aspects including the company’s overarching vision and its roadmap to short and long-term goals. This allows the CTO to share it with his organization who are tasked with implementing the technological aspects that support scaling and accelerate growth. 

By motivating their teams to make decisions that align with these goals of growth and innovation, the CTO can avoid micromanagement and step away from daily tasks. This allows the focus to shift to the latest technologies and their potential value in creating technology acceleration that ultimately adds a competitive edge to the company. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • operating systems
  • hardware
  • software development
  • leveraging new project management tools
  • implementing new methodologies
  • acquiring new talent to build/grow the team
  • involvement in the development of the MVP


What does it take to become a good CTO? Here are a few examples:
  • A bachelor’s degree. In addition to the diploma, candidates should also have management experience in the IT (information technology) field. Preference is often given to candidates with a master’s degree (see below).
  • An MBA in IT Management. To earn this advanced degree, candidates will learn the skills they need to excel as a CTO, including managerial economics and global information technology management.
  • A minimum of 10 years experience (preferably 15 or more years). Jobs in software development, security engineering, or information security management can all provide the requisite experience.
  • The ability to engage in case study analysis. This skill helps the CTO navigate modern business challenges with finesse.
  • Leadership skills. The individual you hire will be responsible for running a vital department within the organization.
  • Competence assessment. When a team member isn’t living up to their potential, the CTO should be able to recognize this and take any necessary steps to correct the situation.

What Your Company Should Offer

Before you hire a CTO, you’ll need to know what they expect in terms of salary and benefits. Good candidates are hard to come by—this is a highly competitive field, and you want to stay abreast of the current trends.

Average Salary for a CTO



Source: Key Search

Other Benefits

The basics—such as health, dental, and life insurance—should go without saying. But what makes your company stand out in the field? Make sure to list any and all reasons why a candidate should choose to embark on their career path with you, rather than the competition.

Here are some of the things you might consider listing in the job description:

  • Whether remote work is an option
  • How much freedom they’ll have in terms of experimentation
  • How many employees they’ll oversee
  • What they’ll be offered in terms of vacation time, sick days, and PTO
  • What types of software they’ll be using (you might consider upgrading before drafting the job description)

Crafting The Role Definition

In addition to the considerations listed above, you should let potential candidates know what the position entails and what will be expected of them.

That said, it’s important not to include too much information. Anyone who’s truly interested will ask the appropriate questions during the interview. At that time, you’ll be able to get a better idea about whether the person will be the right fit for the job.

What To Include

  • A thorough job description. This should include details about the role that the individual will play within the company, with an overview of the most important tasks. If the CTO will be reporting to the CEO or another higher-up, that should be made clear as well.
  • A list of roles and responsibilities. This is an excellent way to make your business stand out from the competition. Use clear and concise language to make it evident that the person who’s hired will play an essential role moving forward.
  • Essential requirements. If you would prefer a candidate with a master’s degree, say so here. Also, list the minimum amount of experience required, for both managerial roles and the technological field in general.
  • Salary information. Prospective hires won’t want to waste their time with a company that might not pay them what they’re worth. If you’re willing to negotiate with the right candidate, make sure to say so.

Information about the company itself. You want to emphasize what makes this a great place to work, rather than putting all the focus on the candidate.

What Not To Include

  • Too much jargon. Even candidates for a position as CTO may glaze over when faced with a long list of obscure terminology, or abbreviations that aren’t widely known.
  • Any outdated information. Spruce up your role description on a regular basis.
  • Any descriptors that suggest discrimination on the basis of age or gender.
  • Outsized expectations. Obviously, you want to hire the most competent candidate, but try to be realistic. List the most essential requirements first, and include any others under the “preferred” category.
  • Spelling and grammatical errors. Job seekers won’t take your company seriously if the role definition is peppered with obvious mistakes.

Choosing the Right Candidate

​​”At any point in your business life cycle, the CTO’s major objective is to make sure your business needs are reflected in your product through the best possible use of technology.”

Steel Kiwi

How can you determine whether one of the candidates will be the right fit for the position? There are several options, but a personal interview is likely your best bet.

Phone interviews can be informative, but they don’t give you a strong enough sense of how the candidates present themselves. When you meet the person face-to-face, you’ll be able to gauge their interpersonal skills right away—and we’ve already determined that this is an essential requirement. 

References, or, How to Avoid Failed Hires

Did you know that the cost of a failed hire equals roughly 8 months of lost productivity? For an executive team member like the CTO, this cost is even higher given the position’s high impact on the company’s technological setup and development and possible necessary corrections that ensue. 

A major step in avoiding a failed hire is to emphasize the review of a mix of references. Request them from the candidates but also consider approaching people from your shared network and proactively reach out to potential references to give you feedback while being mindful to avoid someone from their current company. 

Pertinent Questions

Here are a few of the questions you might ask during an in-person interview when hiring a CTO:

  • Which news sources do you use when gathering information?
  • How would changing technologies result in new opportunities for business growth?
  • Describe any new technologies you’ve discovered, and how they shaped your work experience.
  • Do you spend any time on knowledge development outside work? If so, how much time?
  • Name a book you’ve read that shed new light on your work in the technological field, and describe any changes you made as a result.
  • What’s the best way to describe your style as a leader?
  • Describe your greatest technological failure.
  • Are you comfortable working with people outside the company?
  • What are your favorite ways to spend your free time?

Knowledge Assessment

There are ways to test a candidate’s knowledge even if you don’t have a strong technical background yourself. One way to do this is to ask them about the latest technologies, specifically whether there are any that your company should be using. Then ask how they would use that technology to solve any potential business problems.

Another approach in the hiring process of a CTO is a case study. Use a case study that relates to your company and targets a topic that is important for its technological growth.

Finally, ask questions that are open-ended and don’t forget to check their references and qualifications. 

Examples of Successful CTOs

The following CTOs have worked hard to make names for themselves in their chosen field. Even if you don’t know their names, you’re bound to recognize the companies they work for.

  • Werner Vogels—Amazon
  • Mike Schroepfer—Facebook
  • Parag Agrawal—Twitter
  • Mark Russinovich—Microsoft Azure
  • Rathi Murthy—Verizon Media
  • Aristotle “Ari” Balogh—Airbnb
  • Gerri Martin-Flickinger—Starbucks

In addition to technological knowledge, a CTO should possess skills that will make your company stand out. As the CTO of Starbucks, Gerri Martin-Flickinger puts customer service at the forefront. Mike Schroepfer, meanwhile, has experience working with AI tools, which allows him to weed out fraudulent accounts on Facebook.

Key Search Executive Search has successfully helped numerous companies find the CTO that matches the unique needs of the company they joined.

Planning an Executive Search

Since your CTO will be instrumental in the success of your business, your search should make use of the best tools available.

Of course, you can put up a posting on your company’s job boards and reach out via social media, but these methods are better suited for lower-level jobs. The most viable candidates may already be comfortably ensconced in positions they enjoy. Your job is to find a CTO who can be convinced to join your company instead.

Networking is one way to do this. Reach out to rival businesses, especially those who have recently hired a CTO themselves. Chances are, they’ll know someone who is highly qualified but wasn’t quite the right fit for their company. You can even make a competition out of it by offering a referral bonus in return for a successful hire.

If these methods don’t work, it’s time to turn to an executive search firm to help you hire a chief technical officer. For senior-level positions such as this one, it’s the best way to go.

About Key Search

At Key Search, we’re devoted to helping you cultivate your business by hiring the very best talent on the market. Our network of professionals is constantly reaching out to businesses around the world in an effort to seek out the cream of the crop.

As experts in hiring executive leaders, our list of clients includes a number of startups and other fast-growing businesses, from digital and hospitality tech to e-commerce. Booking.com, indeed.com, and Gucci are just a few of the names you might recognize. When you add your company’s name to the list, our consultants will work hard to make it stand out.

About the Author