Attention: Details for summer term 2024 will be added in due time. Details listed here are for orientation purposes only.


How to be a (Startup) CTO

Dozent: Dr. Frank Pawlitschek (School of Entrepreneurship)

Allgemeine Informationen

  • Semester hours per week: 2
  • ECTS: 3
  • Module selection at HPI (preliminary):
  • Graded: Yes
  • Enrollment deadline: will be announced soon
  • Examination date §9 (4) BAMA-O (8 days rule): tbd
  • Teaching format: Seminar
  • Module type: Wahlpflichtmodul
  • Language: Englisch


Summer School 2024

The course aims to shed light on central aspects of corporate management and role models in the field of startups and digital companies. The three central questions that will be answered are:

  1. What defines the role of a CTO in a startup and which are the most important roles she has to work with
  2. How does the role of a CTO change over the growth phase of companies?
  3. What makes a CTO? What skills does a CTO need and how can one acquire them? What is the difference between a Developer and a CTO?

The whole course will be broken up into seven central responsibilities of a CTO - and the questions which come with it:

1. Tech: Selecting the technology, testing and application architecture, including drafting the strategic vision behind it towards an MVP

The first goal of a startup is usually the MVP, and in the beginning the CTO builds it hands-on, which also means choosing a technology. Alone this choice is complicated: Do you want to reach the MVP fast and know that lots of code has to be rewritten later e.g. for scalability? Often CTOs fall into the trap of premature optimization or love for a technology which is rarely known and results in problems when hiring developers later. Also the question of how much technology to build inhouse and source from other vendors such als Cloud Computing providers (and a potential dependence on a certain provider) is important. Also the CTO has to manage the switch from actively getting involved in coding and technology decisions to a managing role quite quickly. Last but not least, often the advice from the ecosystem of the startup such as Angel investors and peer-group CTO's is often neglected.

This phase is also a very good connection to the academic research side of things. Selecting a technology and architecture is not just a "gut feeling" (as it's often handled - "I used that technology before") but should be handled as writing a scientific paper - weighing in all the pro's and cons, the potential effects for the company in its different phases - and come to a methodic, well-thought conclusion in the end.

2. HR: Hiring, managing, growing and retaining the team, including budgeting

In today's fast changing world, the challenge of hiring a great team is harder than ever. Just a large salary and stock options won't cut it. Should developers be hired locally or should a CTO opt for a remote-first approach (and if yes, what administrative and communicative burdens do come with it). After hiring, a team needs to be managed, especially due to the fast growing pace of a modern startup. But often in growth, retaining talent and a healthy growth is often neglected. How should a CTO work together with HR? And how to budget for a developer?

3. Tracking: KPI definition and tools

You can't manage what you can't measure - Google might be an excessive prime example for that, but often developers build stuff without measuring it. Is the feature actually being used by the customer? Does it put additional burden to the performance of the application? Often CTOs start and postpone the KPIs to later (or choose some vanity metrics without any meaning). A small set of well chosen KPIs - and the transparency of those for all employees - can be often crucial for the business.

4. Product Management: Customer Input and interactions, including different setups to work with a CPO or for an integrated CTPO role as well as QA

As soon as a product gets more complex, it needs a formalized product management. Often certain roles are hired for that up to a CPO - but how does a CTO work with a CPO? Often it ends up that features get decided upon and thrown over the fence for implementation to the CTO. And what's the role of QA? Does it belong to the CTO or the CPO? Is a joint CTPO role any good? Who reports to whom? There are many product manager roles in modern startups, but it's often the crucial point where frustration sets in and the product doesn't advance as fast as it should.

5. Operations: Ensuring smooth ops, including DevOps, security and GDPR

You build it, you run it - with the advent of DevOps and Cloud Computing the operations role changed a lot within the last 10 years. Besides the crucial stability of the operation itself, it is very important to bake in aspects of security and data protection from the beginning into the product and mindset to avoid terrible surprises. It is important that everybody in the team knows how to deal with different scenarios and be prepared for them - and the CTO needs a masterplan to ensure smooth operations.

6. Communication: Public representation of the company, especially with investors, in front of employees and at public speaking opportunities

Traditionally, tech people are said to be bad communicators. This is true to a certain extent as this role requires not just tech but also business-related communication skills which are often nowhere taught. How do you talk with investors? What questions are asked in a Tech DD? How do you negotiate? What are typical deal terms in VC and angel deals to watch out for? How often should you update your employees with new information? How often should you talk with customers? How important is public representation, e.g. through conference talks? Great CTOs are usually great communicators to make complicated technology as transparent as possible for anybody inside and outside of the company.

7. Personal qualifications: Staying on top of the game, staying sane.

All those requirements often require immense focus from the person filling the CTO role. Besides all that, she still needs to stay on top of the game, learn about new technologies, get new inputs through talking with customers and other CTOs. As the day still has only 24 hours, prioritization and focus is key - also in order to keep mentally sane in times of pressure. Building a startup is a marathon, not a sprint, and you need to pace yourself to make it.


  • Beasly, John - The Modern CTO
  • Petrikhin A. (2017) – Specifics and core functions of the CTO position and “Hidden CTOs” in the technology management processes. Dissertation, Steinbeis University of Berlin
  • Devine, Rorie – The CTO ¦ CIO Bible: The Mission Objectives Strategies And Tactics Needed To Be A Super Successful CTO ¦ CIO
  • Ries, Eric – The Lean Startup

Lern- und Lehrformen

The lecture covers three different aspects:

  1. Knowledge: Imparting knowledge about business management and project management. Job description and skillset of a CTO.
  2. Experience: First-hand learning through discussions and content work with actual CTOs.
  3. Networking & Socializing: Getting to know fellow students and field experts. Opportunity for personal exchange and networking among students.

For each of those responsibilities, there will be a talk by an experienced founder from the field - somebody who had to tackle all that personally (and not just gained the knowledge theoretically from books). Besides a lecture covering the topic, the speakers are requested to include interactive parts - for example a mock job interview with a developer, a call with a potential investor, practical checklists (e.g. for GDPR compliance), etc. - interactivity is key.

At the end of all talks, there will be an OpenCafe session with tables regarding those seven topics where everybody can join a table they most associate to and go into deeper topics and questions which should be dug a little bit deeper into. The findings from those tables will be then presented to the rest of the group for each table by the participants for 10 minutes.


The course ends with an (non-multiple-choice!) examination covering all topics mentioned above, compiled by the speakers and curated by HPI. In the questions, certain scenarios will be laid out and the student needs to describe how to handle the situation.


09.-11.09.2024: Summer School at HPI (3 full days; Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday)

Students from outside HPI

We offer few places for non-HPI students in this program. If you are interested please text us at e-school-program(at)hpi.de

Your application should include:

  • your current certificate of study (Studienbescheinigung)
  • 3-5 sentences of motivation
  • a current CV