Should The CTO Code? 16 Tech Leaders Weigh In

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In today’s digital world, the role of chief technology officer has expanded. CTOs are more involved in every aspect of their companies and have taken on roles that are more focused on overall strategy and are often customer-facing. Their education and inclination may lead them to keep their heads down and focus on programming and coding—but is this the best use of their experience, talent, time and energy?

We asked the expert members of Forbes Technology Council if they believe a CTO should still spend time coding with their team and if so, why. Here’s what our panel had to say.

1. Don’t code as a way to procrastinate.

Capable CTOs should continue to write code as long as they are continuing to keep pace with their other responsibilities, are not using it as a way to procrastinate, and are following all the rules within the organization for doing so. There is a danger in a CTO going rogue and doing whatever they want, which clearly has more negative consequences than positive. Leading by example is a critical feature of a good CTO, in my opinion. – Bryan Smith, Myia Health

2. Sit with engineers and review their code.

As Flannery O’Connor noted, “Everything that rises must converge.” I find myself more passionate about design patterns and championing software engineering as an artisan craft than generating volumes of code myself. However, I still will sit with engineers and walk through code to share what I see as the story it is telling me. – Joe Karbowski, FM:Systems

3. Make sure you understand your company’s codebase.

When communicating with customers (especially B2B), a CTO’s expertise can be useful. But if the CTO doesn’t know the company’s codebase and architecture from the inside out, it will be a loose communication exercise. The CTO should be part of non-technical meetings and early discussions on product definition and market requests, and they should be at the cutting edge of tech watches so they can bring this vision into the company’s inner workings. Our company is keen on building privacy into our products; this translates directly into code design and structures and is much more than encryption. The CTO not only needs to be in tune with products and users but also with figuring out how to get this done. – Martin Zizi, Aerendir Mobile Inc.

4. Know where your time is best spent based on your company’s size.

Whether or not a CTO should program/code and “pitch in” on the actual programming is a question of company size. If the company is small and hands-on programming is one of the strengths that particular CTO offers that can provide immediate value, great. However, as the company develops or if the company size merits more focus on customer-facing strategy, a CTO needs to know where their time is best spent. They should be constantly evolving with the business and prepared to move beyond the programming keyboard as the company scales. However, they should also maintain a strong, tightly knit interaction with their lead developers, as the CTO has the background and knowledge to lead them effectively in programming activities. – Kim LaFleur, Title3Funds

5. Focus on innovation and proof, not development.

CTOs are curious, particularly about the way engineering projects get done and about early insights on optimum methods to accommodate deadlines. Should they have a hand in the coding portion of a project? My response would be no. CTOs need to set and drive the technical direction. They need to inspire employees and engage with customers to ensure the engineering organization is working on products that are relative to the market demand. The CTO role has shifted from being your “best programmer” to being your “best evangelist.” Bottom line? CTOs should keep their hands dirty, but not in a mission-critical way. Keeping your hands dirty should be focused on innovation and proof rather than developing the product. – Tom Fisher, SAS

6. Remember your thought leadership matters more.

A CTO should certainly focus more on IT thought leadership, which helps lay the IT roadmap in terms of technology and innovation that the company will be using to succeed. I would more say coding or no coding would depend upon what type of audience you are facing and what their expectations are. If as a CTO you are trying to promote the effectiveness of an API tool and want to show a live demo, you may want to get yourself ready up front. But then you may want to enable your development manager to get engaged in that activity while you do the talking—engaging your partner and the audience in the discussion, of course. – Joydeep Mukherjee, McPherson Oil

7. Keep your hand in to stay up-to-date.

I strongly believe that every CTO (and even CEOs of tech companies) should find opportunities to code/program regularly. With technology rapidly changing, “hands-on leadership” is the only leadership that creates a good tech organization. From debugging to doing pet projects, figuring out opportunities to code can enable leaders to achieve multiple purposes. It helps them continuously learn new things and makes them connect with junior people, thereby keeping them grounded. Most importantly, it helps them constantly zoom in and zoom out. I code in multiple languages and will not hire an executive who is not willing to code. – Suhas Patil, Sankey Solutions

8. Put your energy into creating a strategic architecture.

Given the rapidly changing dynamics of SaaS, the role of the CTO is no longer “fingers to keyboard.” Instead, a CTO must create and manage a strategic architecture that can meet the cross-functional requirements of the organization. The CTO must understand who the leading partners are in the marketplace and how to best utilize each partner to the ultimate benefit of the enterprise’s customers. – Fang Cheng, Linc Global

9. Code as a way to step into developers’ shoes.

CTOs should still code from time to time for two reasons: First, because languages and tools are constantly changing, and being hands-on in code from time to time is a great forcing function for keeping abreast of the latest and greatest. Second, and maybe more important, is that organizations can inadvertently add a lot of friction in their systems as they grow and scale, causing their developers to spend an inordinate percentage of their team wrestling with corporate processes and systems. Being hands-on puts a CTO in their developers’ shoes so they can see what’s working and what’s not firsthand. – Nick Elprin, Domino Data Lab

10. Set a vision and oversee tactical execution.

The CTO is an organization’s most senior technologist. As a member of the senior leadership team, the CTO is responsible for setting the strategic vision for the technology office. In addition, the CTO is responsible for overseeing tactical execution within her functional areas—which may include infrastructure, networking, and data management and analytics, among others—to accomplish objectives. Perhaps instead of fixating on whether a CTO should program, we should examine the CTO’s model for success, which may incorporate programming contributions, and whether that model aligns with the organization’s needs. If alignment exists, then perhaps there is little concern about the CTO pitching in a few or more lines of code. – Aleksandar Velkoski, National Association of REALTORS®

11. Let your coders do what they do best.

An old rule in management is to hire people who are better at what they do than you are at what they do. At the C-level, you need to be looking at more strategic and tactical problems and letting the coders do what they do best. If a CTO has the skill—and, more importantly, the time—to lend a hand, then they may want to keep their hand in. They just need to be sure their input is actually beneficial. – Saryu Nayyar, Gurucul

12. Balance business enablement while managing risk.

In a world where traditional business models are rapidly disintegrating and emergent models are based on co-opetition and collaboration, CTOs, if they are to remain relevant, must think of balancing business enablement while managing risk. This means balancing business needs, business value and business priorities against development processes, architectures and delivery automation capabilities. – Altaz Valani, Security Compass

13. Prioritize what is urgent versus what is important.

This is a question of size versus scale. A CTO with a small, focused startup can and probably should code with the technology team. However, a CTO who needs to scale across GTM, sales, partners, vendors, clients, board members and their tech teams should prioritize what is urgent versus what is important. You don’t have to cut production code to remain relevant. Join hackathons. Code out of hours. However, don’t lose touch, because technologists respect technologists. Stay current by walking the walk, being curious and practicing your craft. Only then can a CTO field questions both top-down (executive) and bottom-up (developers) and translate between the two. – Cleve Gibbon, Wunderman Thompson

14. Embrace opportunities to learn, but don’t micromanage.

It is incumbent upon every CTO to perform his or her own basic discovery. So embracing opportunities to learn comes with the territory—although not at the expense of micromanaging the work of the development team. By and large, senior leaders set the tone, establish the vision and supervise technical execution for any given project. They seldom dig down into the weeds of the process, but they do require a green thumb of sorts when it comes to nurturing strategic growth from the inside out. Hands-on production capability is one thing, but high-level oversight is a prerequisite. CTOs need to convey their support from a position of collegial understanding and distribute tasks accordingly in service of the interests of all stakeholders. – Meghann Chilcott, XIL Consulting

15. Only code if it’s the most valuable thing you can do for the business.

In the early stages of a business, the CTO can and should be hands-on to make sure the product evolves the right way. But as the business scales, production software coding is not a value-added activity. The focus should be on being the tech visionary for the company. A CTO should do production software coding only if it’s one of the most valuable things they can do for the business. – Beena Jacob, Donoma Software

16. Never lose your touch.

Learning does not carry an expiration date/age. It is important to always be in the game, whatever your role may be. If you are not in the race and keeping up with the market’s pace, then it’s only a title you are carrying, with knowledge and expertise that are not current. – Bhavna Juneja, Infinity, a Stamford Technology Company

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