Lighten Up / Tighten Up

As I was writing my previous post about The Constipation of Scale I got an email from a co-investor talking about a CEO / CTO conflict.  It had an interesting phrase in it that I realized applies to many CEO / CTO relationships – “CEO needs to lighten up and CTO needs to tighten up.” 

While this isn’t always the order (sometimes the CEO needs to tighten up!), the source of conflict like this is pretty predictable.  I’ve seen this over and over and over again – as an investor you see the natural (and healthy) tension between CEO and CTO.  If the CEO and CTO don’t know how to play together (or are both experiencing their roles together for the first time) this healthy tension often continues to evolve until armageddon looms.  One day you wake up and realize you’ve got an issue.

Ironically, it’s an easy one to address.  Our friendly neighborhood CTO needs to tighten up and our CEO needs to lighten up.  Now – I said it’s easy to address – not “to solve” as this behavior change often feels like a chinese finger trap – they harder you work at it, the more ensnared you get.

As I reflect on this, these situations spiral out of control more frequently when the CEO and CTO are not co-founders (e.g. one or the other is hired in after the company is founded.)  As CTO’s are natural technical founders, this dynamic often appears when a CEO is hired – even very early (e.g. < 10 people in the company), especially if the CTO / founder never actively acknowledges the dynamics between a CEO and CTO (e.g. the CEO is the ultimate boss.)

The success cases are ones where the CEO and the CTO work hard on their relationship from the start, recognize that they are different people, have different styles, have different roles, and actively engage in figuring out an effective working relationship.

Like most things that are out of balance, you can get in balance quickly by shifting your behavior a little.  This doesn’t just apply to CEO / CTO relationships – it applies to negotiations, political views, marriages, and even relationships with your dog.  If you are naturally “tight”, try lightening up.  If you are naturally “light”, try tightening up.  In either case, it’s a lot easier than dealing with a meltdown.

  • A few examples would help here. An example of a CEO being too tight or a CTO being too light? Honestly I immediately think of those terms as security-related and I’m pretty sure that’s not what you meant! Did you mean in terms of sharing information? Or just in general attitude? The CTO is too easy going and the CEO is too much of a stuffed shirt?

  • Michael

    I find this post extremely confusing.

    As a person who speaks English as a second language, I have only a vague idea what “lighten up” means and no idea what “tighten up” means.

    You seem to be saying something that is important and might be of value to me.

    Can you explain?

  • @Pete – one great example is Jason Calcanis’ response-post titled How to have a happy CTO & CEO marriage. It’s more than just sharing info – it’s attitude, functional work style, dynamics around responsibility, interaction with other members of the team, etc.

  • @Michael:

    “lighten up” means “to relax”, “be less tense and rigid”, “have a more mellow attitude.”

    “tighten up” means “to get more formal”, “to be more rigorous”, “to be more rigid.”

  • Dave Jilk

    This sounds right in terms of the diagnosis (CEO too tight, CTO too light) but I’m not so sure of the prescription you’re advocating (“change your personalities!”) Certainly if approached methodically early on, and in dealing with self-aware individuals, it’s possible for some adjustments like this to take place – but typically if the individuals are susceptible to adjustment and further the required adjustment is in the range of attainability, they’re already working on it.

    My experience is that in many software/IT/Internet startups, at least, the problem is that the role of “CTO” is confused with the role of “VP of Engineering.” There could not be two more different roles: VP Eng is a manager and executive, loves process and the day to day handling of people, is patient, gets satisfaction from delivering on time, on schedule, high quality – and she/he is comfortable saying “no” to sales/management team. A CTO gets satisfaction from providing technical vision, hacking/architecting new capabilities, promoting the product/technology to the technical community, etc., and he/she likes saying “yes” to customers and the CEO. There are really very few people who can fill both roles at different times, and it is very hard for *anyone* to fill both at the same time.

    Interestingly, your next post (about feature constipation) is related to this. CTO-types can often deliver features quickly but not necessarily in a scalable, robust fashion; VP Eng types can make things scale but at the cost of speed.

    My prescription is that the CTO-type personality (particularly a founder) needs to move into a true CTO role at the stage where this causes significant conflict and get un-involved in the engineering process (*really* un-involved – meddling is a prescription for disaster, hobbling the actual VP Eng). A Series A investor should be astute enough to see the personality types at the beginning and position the role with this type of founder.

    Another thing that sometimes happens is that VP Engineering types want to be the CTO too, or at least have the title. Again this is confusing the roles and is a big mistake. If the VP Engineering is writing code or touching the DBMS, things are askew.

  • sigma

    Dave has a reasonably good description of the jobs of VP Engineering and CTO. I can believe that he could also write equally good job descriptions for CEO, COO, CIO, CFO, VP Marketing, Director of Operations, Director of Software Development, etc.

    With these good descriptions, each person should know fairly clearly what they are to do and what others are to do. Good.

    With such clear descriptions, I can believe that Dave could do at least several of these jobs, following the specific job description and not attempting to do some other job instead.

    Similarly for many people, especially highly motivated and especially well qualified company founders.

    In particular, it would be a mistake to claim that one person is somehow limited, by interests, ability, etc., to doing at most one of these jobs.

    Or, “Joe, you have done really well. Now it is time for a new job description necessary to take this company to the next level. Since you did so well with this job, it’s definitely the job for you and, since each person has the ability to do at most one job, the new job is just as definitely not the job for you. I know; I know; Gates, Dell, Page and Brin, and many others stand as contradictions to this, but we can forget about them. Instead, CLEARLY one person can do at most one job. So, goodbye, Joe, and thanks for building such a good business, we’re very glad to have it, and, since you’re not yet vested, please leave the stock options on the way out the door.”

    Joe might respond: “Okay, wondered about that. For the sake of your limited partners, you might give me a shot at the job with the new description. Just temporary, of course, until you find a new person. Since, as you know, the new job description promises to be challenging for me, I won’t have any spare time to train the new person. Besides, don’t want you to lose any sleep over this, but without pretty good knowledge of the internals of that server farm and the software, I mean, should I not take the new position, don’t be too surprised if some things start to go a little funny — just a little wacko — in a few days. And, for the architecture for the next level of scalability, reliability, security, system management, system recovery, and the list of new features on the way, sorry, but I didn’t get a chance to document my good ideas. As you know, with the good work we’ve done, we’ve been busy around here. But, sure, can find just anyone to come in here; with a good background, hard work, lots of talent, they might be up to speed here in as little as, would you believe, three years? Uh, we might want to discuss this with the Board and with my co-founders, say, just to get their thoughts on such things. Besides, since we agree that the new jobs are risky, for each of us founders, to stay on to the next level, we will be wanting more in stock options. We’re sure you and the rest of the Board will understand and very much want this extra motivation to help us meet the challenges you have described and ensure the success we all want.”