alphalist Blog

How to be a Great CTO and Achieve Production Excellence


CTOs are responsible for providing whatever your company needs from a technical standpoint. What is the ‘one job’ of a CTO? There is no clear-cut role because every company: some CTOs are dealing with deep architecture, others (like Charity Majors) with evangelism. Charity’s evangelism takes a variety of forms as she believes the success of Honeycomb relies on people writing better code so, on top of explaining observability, she also helps people write better code- on Twitter and her blog. 

Table of Contents

Rethink the Hierarchy.

“I hate hierarchy. I think it's this distorting lens that makes people unhappy with what they have….If I had my way, I think that I would pay everyone at an almost equal salary. So that where you worked in the hierarchy was more reflective of what kind of work you like to do” says Charity. Being an engineer means that you get to work close to production in tight feedback loops and see the impact your work has on the world which people find validating. “And as you get quote, unquote, up the food chain, you, you get less of that,” says Charity.

Many people are in management today for partly the wrong reasons. Charity only went into management because she wanted to be involved in the decision-making process. However, if she had been given the opportunity as an engineer to make decisions about the technical aspects and some more autonomy, she would have probably stayed as an engineer. “Rising the ladder doesn't doesn't mean you're less constrained. It just means that you're constrained in different ways”.

Often overlooked, engineers are super powerful. In a tech company, nothing happens unless they build it. But engineers seem to think that ‘only managers do those things. However, Charity says ‘I think a lot of times it happens because managers pick up the baton as a last resort because engineers are not muscularly performing their role, like insisting that ‘no, these are technical decisions, technical people should make them, we need access to this information so that we can make good decisions. The charity believes that there should be “a parallel track of ICs and managers that goes all the way up to VP”

It's about feedback loops and systems, not about individual points

The systems feed back into each other, which is why the amount of time between when you code it and when it's live is so important. If the system is sociotechnical, then your job as a technical leader is to pinpoint inefficiencies in that system and work to resolve them. As a CTO there are very few problems you can solve with just technology or just with people. This is why you get paid lots of money because you supposedly know enough that you can blend the two disciplines.

Keep both the Team and Users happy.

Every system has two constituents: the engineering team and the users. The happiness of your users and the happiness of your engineering team go up and down in tandem. Long term, if your team isn’t happy neither will the users and vice versa. “The happiness of your team can be a really important Canary in the coal mine when it comes to how your customers are doing and vice versa,” says Charity. You have to care for the mental health, emotional health, the interactions between your team, etc.

Treat Employees as Adults

This is part of the HoneyComb values. It goes beyond the choice of employer perks (healthcare for families instead of kombucha fountains) and no crazy hours - it's also about trusting employees to be adults and get work done without policing. They can work wherever they want. As adults though, they are expected to be in control of their emotions, be good at communicating. “there's a lot, that's infantilizing about modern corporations and companies and, and I just really reject that and I think that people can handle the truth.”

Strategic Transparency

Transparency is great, yet people need to know the general information - they don't need step-by-step transparency as that is overwhelming. Behind the scenes at any company, there are ups and downs and not everyone needs to be taken on that roller coaster.