From Engineer To CTO, Self-Improvement Required

From Engineer To CTO, Self-Improvement Required

CTO and CISO at BeyondTrust, overseeing the company’s technology for privileged and remote access solutions.

Montgomery Scott (aka Scotty) from the original Star Trek series reprised his role in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called “Relics.” Within that episode, he had several quotes that exemplify what it is like for a systems engineer to become a chief technology officer (CTO) — or captain.

In my opinion, the best is: “I may be captain by rank, but I never wanted to be anything else but an engineer.” That is quite profound because even if you are the best engineer, it does not give you the traits to become a CTO.

There is a lot of self-improvement that needs to come first. This includes skills like leadership, communication, trustworthiness, reliability, honesty, empowerment, empathy and more. While some leaders have more of these traits than others, just being smart or good at your job is not enough to guide a business to success and become a leader.

How does an ambitious engineer start on the path to the executive suite? Consider the following:

• Passion: If someone is going to be a CTO, they need to have a passion for the business and every aspect of the business, from its customer base to its products. Additionally, they should be focused on finding new ways to benefit both their employees as well as their customers.

• Teamwork: It is critical to know that everyone is part of the same team and that no one person is more important. They must understand that the diversity of a team — the different experiences, expertise and backgrounds — is what ultimately makes it work so well.

• Praise: A CTO needs to help lift the spirits of the team. If someone fails, they should not bring them down even more. Praising your team can have many benefits, as it helps foster a winning environment and inspires people to keep up the good work. 

Once you have begun to understand how to lead a team with passion and praise, some personal traits need continuous polishing. Consider this second quote that highlights what a good CTO is from Scotty to Lt. Geordi La Forge: “Oh, laddie. You’ve got a lot to learn if you want people to think of you as a miracle worker.”

This reveals some traits that all employees will expect from you every day as a part of your interaction:

• Reliability: In order to be a great CTO, there needs to be a high level of personal responsibility. Each decision and action has a consequence. They should be reliable — someone whom the team can look to in order to find solutions to their problems and to ultimately achieve positive results.

• Trustworthiness: A CTO should be someone who the whole team can trust. They need to be willing to go out and seek the advice of others. Over time, the entire team benefits from these efforts, as a transparent feedback loop leads to personal growth.

• Honesty: CTOs should act with integrity and promote an honest and ethical environment. When working with their teams, they should be honest and listen to the input of others. And above all, they should always strive to do the right thing — even if it is not always the easiest thing to do. 

Finally, the third quote Scotty gives to Geordi is: “A good engineer is always a wee bit conservative, at least on paper. But the secret is to give them only what they need, not what they want.” While this might not be what you expected as a recommendation, it does highlight something very important about an executive: Executives should always be at the top of their game and be able to fill in the blanks, complete sentences and deduce what employees may need even when they cannot articulate the problem themselves.

With that in mind, the following characteristics are always a work in progress for an engineer who’s on the path to becoming a CTO:

• Empathy: According to Verywell Mind, empathy is “The ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view and imagine yourself in their place.”As a rising CTO, your success is therefore measured on your reaction to make the right decisions and comments based on their individual needs and desires. This alone will give them what they need to continue, not necessarily what they want.

• Empowerment: People prefer having power and control over their own lives. When teammates get the support they need that is personalized for them, they often succeed far better than broad strokes of generic support. To that end, you cannot empower someone else or make someone empowered; they have to take the initiative themselves.

• Humility: A great CTO has the quality of being unpretentious and demonstrates the means of putting the needs of another teammate before their own. It is the final trait to link everything together and will help you succeed with what people want and not what you want yourself.

While it may seem silly that a science fiction television show can enlighten people to become better, it is more obtuse to think that creative writing is a dead end to convey material that anyone can understand. Good communication skills are the most important trait that any engineer who wants to become a CTO could possibly learn. Sometimes, using the analogy of quotes from a TV series is the perfect example of how to bridge the gaps between diversity and inclusion.

Whether it is written, oral or public speaking, it does not matter. For success, learn how to communicate all of your thoughts, ideas, ambitions and feelings. While you do so, remember the importance of these nine traits. Once you do, then even something as basic as creative writing to express an aspirational goal will acutely become second nature on your journey to successful leadership.

Forbes Technology Council is an invitation-only community for world-class CIOs, CTOs and technology executives. Do I qualify?