When I want to put life in perspective, I look up at the sky and try to remember where we are relative to the universe. When I want to be inspired, I look to progress we’re making as a species — toward space exploration in particular.

Like many of you, I watched in rapt attention two years ago as SpaceX successfully launched its first Falcon Heavy rocket. It was the simultaneous landing of the two primary boosters that made me cheer the loudest then, and just recently, my young daughter and I leaped with joy when Bob Behnken and Douglas Hurley successfully made it into orbit aboard the Crew Dragon spaceship sitting atop a Falcon 9. These two events mark the culmination of some seriously heavy engineering efforts, each one building on the success of the last.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that such achievements were made possible by the vision, skill, knowledge, and most importantly, bold and confident leadership of Elon Musk… and, of course, Tom Mueller, the inaugural CTO for SpaceX’s Propulsion team, who ensures his rockets make it to orbit and back again 10 times (I love reusability!).

While the International Space Station is fine for Mr. Musk today, he’s obviously thinking about the moon tomorrow, and Mars the next day.

But even with all the cash, smart engineers, modern technologies, and proven processes at his disposal, Musk counts on Mueller’s mature leadership to tie it all together. That’s the secret sauce that helps him manage risk, build for the future, and deliver a solid return on R&D investment.

As CEO of your own software company, you’re naturally focused outward, studying your market, spotting opportunities, reeling in new customers, servicing current ones, and staying ahead of the competition. Your vision is clear; it’s backed by solid data; and you’ve got the support of your Board, good financials, and some smart developers.

But when it comes to dealing with R&D:

  • You dread talking to your tech lead — it’s like the two of you talk past each other, almost as if you’re speaking different languages
  • You’re not sure if your tech lead really understands your needs or the criticality of certain business milestones
  • You aren’t confident in his or her estimates
  • You keep missing deadlines
  • Your competition is getting closer and appears to be innovating faster than you
  • You don’t understand why it’s so hard to give your customers what they want, when they want it, and with the stability, quality, performance, and scalability they need

If any of this sounds familiar — missed dates or opportunity windows, low development velocity, or just too much risk and thrash — take a look at your Chief Engineer, CTO, or VP of Engineering.

Who’s the Mueller to your Musk? 

It’s their job to manage your expectations, reduce risk, and marshal your R&D resources to get your company where it needs to be, when it needs to be there. So how can you measure the effectiveness of your CTO or tech lead? There are two ways:

1) Look at financial performance.

Measure his or her effectiveness based on financial performance: For a particular initiative, product, or revenue-generating service, compute net new revenue/fully-loaded R&D cost. You can slice this a few different ways, but even looking at quarterly revenue/R&D spend can be illuminating.

Also, determine the percentage of your R&D budget spent on value creation (new products, platforms, or features that generate net new revenue) vs. keeping the lights on (maintenance). This is the ultimate measure of effectiveness of an R&D organization — and its leader.

2) Check for a combination of maturity, confidence, and humility.

There’s no shortage of brash technologists who will say with absolute certainty that the answer to all your problems is [insert tech acronym here]. As business leaders, it’s natural to gravitate toward people with the highest self-confidence. But you must be able to look critically at their leadership credentials and ask yourself some tough questions to better gauge their maturity.

Questions like:

  • Do you sleep better knowing that they’re “on it”? Or is that adding to your insomnia?
  • Do they have a steady hand on the tiller? Are they helping to guide you and your R&D team steadily toward a better place with calmer waters? Or are they jumping from one quick fix to another?
  • Are they itching to throw out your current products or portfolio and rewrite your solution in the “latest” tech stack? If the answer to many of your requests is to “Wait for NextGen,” there’s a problem.
  • Are the technologies used to deliver new products always changing? And are the number of different tech stacks you have to support proliferating? Remember that you’ll have to maintain everything you build — the more technologies you embed, the greater the fraction of R&D time and budget you’ll have to allocate to maintenance moving forward.
  • Are they using the word “pure” often when they’re talking to you? Purity might sound good and feel like a good idea, but it can quickly lead to narrow thinking and a lack of connection to the dynamic needs of your customers and business.
  • Are they chronically underestimating how long something will take to do? Are you always having to apply a “fudge factor” when you receive an estimate? Think of it this way: In Star Trek, when Kirk would ask Scotty how long something would take, Scotty would say four days, Kirk would say “you’ve got four hours,” and somehow Scotty would pull it off. Sounds silly, but wouldn’t you rather your tech lead over-estimate than under-estimate?
  • How good is their follow-through when firefighting? All tech leaders need to be good at putting out fires. But once a fire is out, the effective ones dive deep to determine the root cause and implement changes to technology, staff, or processes to ensure that similar fires won’t happen again. If putting out a fire consists simply of restarting a component, process, service, or machine, consider this a yellow alert — don’t accept this as an answer.
  • Have they cultivated the loyalty, respect, and trust of their peers and direct reports? Are they invested in mentoring their people and advancing their careers? Do they accept accountability when something goes wrong? In the best-led R&D teams, credit travels downward, blame travels upward, and people don’t unplug exactly at 5:00.

I could go on, but will instead direct you to download our Technology Leadership Scorecard — a tool we designed to help you better measure and incentivize the tech leaders in your organization.

Competition is fiercer than ever these days.

As a CEO, you need mature, effective technical leadership to succeed — whether you bring it in from the outside, grow leaders from within, or a blend of the two, there’s no getting around the fact that if you have a gap in technical leadership, things won’t get better until you fill it.

I’d like to leave you with what I consider the distillation of what I’ve learned over the last 30+ years in this field (and 40 years since I got my first computer). Below are five touchstones your tech leads should internalize and embrace, as well as the corresponding questions they should ask when making any technical decision.

Software Development Touchstones for Effective Development

Want to get even more tools to help you effectively manage your software technical leaders? Download our FREE Software Tech Leadership Scorecard and get an action plan to hold your team accountable and tie R&D efforts to revenue.