The path to Chief Technology Officer can be a long road, requiring not only smarts, but a level of curiosity that extends outside of the office. In some companies, the CTO is in charge of the physical tech, acting as the senior IT person. But in others – like big data analytics firm Alteryx, they’re in charge of building the tech that gets sold.
While tech skills are at the base of the job, Alteryx Vice President and CTO Ned Harding argues that almost anyone can acquire those skills with hard work. The skills aspiring CTOs require, he says, are inquisitiveness and perseverance. Software developers looking to move up “need to be innately curious and capable of critical thinking,” he says. “They also need to love solving problems and envisioning how their products get used in order to solve real pain points for their customers.”
Not surprisingly, Harding, who’s also a Co-Founder of Alteryx, was a kid preoccupied with programming, teaching himself to code at the age of eight. “I was naturally curious about learning how to make the games that I wanted to play, so using a DEC PDP-11 Minicomputer that my school had access to, I began learning the source code to build and play very simple games,” he says. Soon after, he graduated to writing more sophisticated games. By the time he went off to Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Massachusetts, he knew more computer programming than his teachers. “By that time I’d taught myself to program Assembly, LISP, Logo, C, BASIC and some even more obscure languages.”
The Entrepreneurial Path
Often, the best CTOs are entrepreneurs — people who’ve spent tons of time developing the next big thing and remembering to take into consideration the business context of their technology. “Too many people believe that the technical side of a business exists separately from the customer,” Harding believes. “However, I think that to get to the top, you have to take a more integrated approach. I believe that getting your hands dirty and participating in the full cycle of software development is most critical for learning.”
And while internships can be a great stepping stone, Harding skipped that step. He believes his time as an entrepreneur was much more valuable on his path to success. After leaving college, he spent a year working for a store that made custom computers. “As I learned more about the business, I recognized ways that I could provide better products for our customers, who were largely software developers,” he says. Soon after, he did just that, starting Native Systems and software consulting on the side. Ultimately, he sold Native Systems for what he calls a “very small profit.”
Harding took a job with a client of Native Systems, QMSoft, a qualitative marketing software firm, working there for a year before he moved on to his next business venture. “I decided I could run a software business myself, and I realized that what I wanted to do was be in charge of technology for a software company,” he says. Soon after, he co-founded SRC, which later became Alteryx, with Dean Stoecker and Olivia Adams.
Getting Great at Your Job
Now as the boss, Harding sits on the other side of the desk and reflects on the challenges in IT hiring. He admits that the hardest type of IT job to hire for is the one that sits at the intersection of creativity and technical skills. “The difference between an adequate employee and the best employee can often be immense,” he observes. “Common industry knowledge asserts that a great programmer can be 20 times as effective as an average one.” One reason: Great programmers can add multiple levels of sophistication to the development process, resulting in an elevated design and user experience.
Getting to that point requires work, but learning can’t occur in the proverbial vacuum. “Working on open source projects provides a great opportunity for everyone, regardless of employment or education status, to get the experience necessary to learn and get your name out there,” Harding says. In fact, he’s participated in open source projects that benefit the work at Alteryx, and has also worked on cycling software projects for fun. To become great, he says, developers need to jump in and get feedback from users and other developers, so they can continually hone their skills.