Susan Potter
software: Created / Updated

Why Early-Stage Software Startups Need Strategic Engineering Leadership

In today's economy, new businesses live or die based on their ability to deliver products and services that exceed customer needs especially since it has never been cheaper to start a software business before. Yet all too often, early-stage startups are led by founding teams who are incredible at sales, marketing, or building prototype-quality MVPs but lack the deep or strategic technical expertise required to scale their brilliant ideas into full-fledged, production-ready offerings after validating their idea.

Without strong technical leadership, these companies risk falling into traps that could derail their success.

The Misaligned Product Trap

Gif of man throwing multiple balls at a target and entirely missing

A startup's founding team might be amazing programmers, but if they don't have an experienced technical leader providing technical strategy, implementing productive software delivery practices across the engineering organization, and technical operations acumen as your business needs to scale, the business could easily build something that misses the mark in terms of service reliability, performance, and scalability be meet customer demand without burning out developers on-call. Using outdated processes, technical stacks, infrastructures, and architectures is a frequently realized risk without an experienced technologist.

The Technical Debt Pit

It's so easy for code written at a hackathon pace to become a tangled, inefficient mess without following best practices for software design, testing, and DevOps processes from the get-go. Technical debt balloons, and soon you're spending more time fixing bugs than building new features. In my blog post series on using TypeScript's type system to reduce bugs by construction, I discussed how to leverage conditional types and mapped types for this purpose as one software engineering approach in a mainstream programming language (not just fancy type system languages designed from the ground up).

The Talent Exodus

As you hire your first engineering employees, you'll find that the engineering talent wanting to work at a startup craves innovative work using modern practices and lightweight processes. They'll be out the door quickly if a startup's technical leadership seems technically oblivious, stuck in the past, or repeating technical mistakes. Most skilled and innovative developers crave an environment of technical curiousity and continuous improvement.

So how can an early-stage startup with limited funds and a non-technical founding team get the technical leadership they need to find the right early-stage engineers who can grow with the business? That's where hiring a fractional CTO like myself can add enormous value, by finding the best people for your venture who will stick around and is capable of building great software products with the right guidance.


As a fractional-CTO/interim CTO/CTO-on-demand, I can bring deep expertise in software engineering best practices, product requirements gathering, tech stack decisions given your product/niche/skillset, engineering team building, and so much more. I can make your innovatie vision turn into a secure, scalable, high-quality product that keeps your engineers motivated and your customers hooked with product reliability, quality, and responsiveness.

The following are just a handful of the ways I can help your startup succeed:

  • Define your product's technical roadmap and software architecture to match your vision for the current and next stage of your business. No need to boil the ocean to prepare for Google-level scale, but there is no reason to fail because you couldn't keep up with customer demands either. See the notes on talk I gave at a local tech meetup about dynamically scaling a news and activism hub to 5x traffic in 20 minutes without a sweat (or doing anything at all) for a case study on scaling a political digital media site that already used Ruby on Rails.
  • Recruit and lead a deligent engineering squad who'll build it well, repeatedly.
  • Advise on tech investments, security, compliance - stuff that can bite you later if ignored.
  • Embedding DevOps practices, testing methodology, and other delivery-focused processes to boost developer productivity and product quality. See the notes from my talk at the Comcast Labs Connect conference in 2018 on exploiting functional programming for configuration management of large-scale server fleets in AWS.
  • Hiring a development team appropriate for your business.

This has been my bread and butter for over 25 years. I have practiced all the above at a technical implementation level and led such efforts (plus much more) across multiple teams and organizations at fast-scaling fintech startups, small scrappy digital media outlets, and acquired SaaS product companies at multiple stages of product development.

Beyond my technical experience, I apply concepts from other fields to ensure smart resource allocation, efficient investment, and ROI focus. Economic principles like opportunity cost, comparative advantage, and thinking on the margins drive my strategic recommendations to founders.

Getting bogged down on the minutia of technical details is not the best way for founders to spend their time. Instead leverage strategic technical advice, technical knowhow, and capability to get hands-on at the code-level to system architecture from someone who understands both the technical depths and strategic big picture. This allows you to focus on the activities that drive your startup forward such as seeking funding, keeping investors informed, making customers delighted while knowing day-to-day techinical operations and engineering practice improvements on lock.

So if you're leading an early-stage tech startup and want to bring aboard someone who can be both your startup's coding sensei (if necessary) or technical strategist without draining your equity, hit me up! I'd love to learn more about your startup and share how my fractional-CTO services could help turn your vision into a thriving, scalable reality.

Find out more about my consulting services or shoot me a message on LinkedIn to get the conversation started. I'm excited to hear from more innovators looking to make their mark on the world!

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