Interview with Frank Gibson — Advice for Aspiring CTOs

I recently caught up with interim CTO/CIO and regular CTO mentor Frank Gibson to find out what his advice would be to aspiring CTOs looking to go down the path of becoming a full time CTO. Here’s what he had to say on the matter;

- What was your route to CTO?

My route to a CTO is not the typical Developer> Senior Developer route. I started my career as a scientist, developing methods and software to understand biological data. This scientific data management is known as Bioinformatics, but today this might have the more trendy name of Data Science.

From here, I moved into the commercial world and joined a Biotech in Cambridge, in somewhat of a combined Business Dev/Bioinformatics role. Then I moved to a healthcare publisher as a knowledge manager. While at the same publishing company I progressed to Engineering Manager then Tech Director (CTO).

- Can you talk about how you stepped into your first CTO role?

The route to my first CTO role was at an organisation going through major change and disruption and embracing the challenge head-on. Forced to accept market pressure and financial constraints the organisation had to downsize and digitise at speed. In a very pressured and stressful environment at the time, I stepped up to manage and deliver the digital projects which involved introducing agile and indirectly managing the development team. From this, there was a natural progression to the Engineering Manager role and then the Director/CTO.

- What was the first thing that you remember hitting you when you became CTO?

The first realisation I had in the CTO role was that I had to step back and not try and do everything myself. As a CTO you will end up managing teams of managers, rather than engineers. I had to learn to step back and support my managers to manage rather than tell them how and what things to do. My role then became much more about coaching my technical managers to become better managers.

- What advice would you give an aspiring CTO that was in a senior developer role now and hoping to step into a CTO role in coming years?

The CTO role is a change in career track. It’s a leadership role in a technical environment. You now get paid for the quality of your decisions instead of before getting paid for the quality of your code.

The first decision you need to make is, “is this something I want to do?”, rather than thinking its a given path or a way to a better salary. The CTO is not always the best architect or engineer in the company, they are the best technical leader.

There is a big list of things I could advise on how to prepare or find that first role. I will share one thing that will deliver the biggest impact both in your current role and in the CTO role. That is improving your Emotional Intelligence (EQ). EQ is the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathise with others. Understanding more about EQ can help build awareness in how your actions and decisions are perceived and allow you to adjust accordingly for success.

- Can you share any top tips for junior or first time CTOs that want to get ahead?

As a CTO you are “the technical expert” in the organisation. Depending on the organisation, there may be a limited number of people, if any, to share your thinking, strategy or stress test ideas. In this respect, it’s important to build a peer-network to be able to have those conversations and create that challenge. Having a mentor or mentors can also help in this regard and, they will provide some more direct guidance.

To quote Naval Ravikant, “there is no skill called business…” but developing a growth mindset will allow you to realise that any skill can be learned and that you just haven’t learnt it, yet.

Networking seems to come up time and time again as a tool that can really help you get ahead in your CTO career. We offer exactly this, a chance to meet other experienced and aspiring CTOs in regular events as part of our Aspiring CTOs group. You can find out more here.


Founder of RecWorks (Tech Recruitment), Tech Career Hacker, Java User Group Founder (LJC), London CTOs Organiser, Mentor Match-Maker

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