I've been a CTO several times. I've worked with many CTO's. Last time I checked, every one of them was a natural-born human being. No cyborgs, no alien intelligences controlling a homo sapiens body. So why is it when most organizations try to hire a CTO, their requirements clearly demand capabilities and accomplishments that no human being could ever achieve?
The Impossible Dream
I've seen a whole pile of CTO job specifications over the years. They are remarkably similar. If I were in the executive recruiting business, I'd be embarassed to deliver my "custom-built" CTO job requirements document, knowing that all I've really done is some light editing from previous efforts. The word "plagarism" somehow comes to mind.
But that's chicken feed compared to the blue whale in the room -- this is a way bigger issue than a mere elephant in a room. It's the fact that no actual, living human being born of human parents (to rule out the alien connection) could ever possibly satisfy the requirements! The "requirements" aren't requirements -- they're an impossible dream.
The Impossible Dreamer
The song and the musical are about Don Quixote, hero of one of the greatest and most influential novels of all time. Don Quixote and his faithful companion Sancho Panza go off on a quest to revive chivalry and do good works.
One of the most famous episodes is Don Quixote going after the windmill, which he imagines to be a giant. Things don't go well.
This is the origin of our phrase "tilting at windmills," in which you are taking on an impossible task.
Impossible CTO Requirements
Part of the trick in writing these requirements is to make it not seem to be an impossible task. I admire the clever writing needed to slide the impossibilities past the average reader, who, frankly, pays little attention to the wording.
The requirements amount to something like the following list:
- The successful candidate will be over 7 feet tall and be able to successfully pass under a limbo pole exactly 2 feet high without touching the ground.
- The successful candidate should be able to crank out bug-free code at the rate of hundreds of lines per hour, while being an empathetic, nuturing leader of technical talent.
- The successful candidate should have a proven track record of hiring technical talent that dresses in board-of-directors-friendly "business casual," works during normal working hours at the designated location, and is consistently cheerful and friendly.
- The successful candidate will have demonstrated the ability to be a self-starter, while at the same time executing management directives enthusiastically and without deviation or failure.
Have I exaggerated? No! I've only slightly edited actual requirements that I've seen in order to protect the guilty.
Trying to hire an in-your-dreams-only CTO is business-as-usual in my experience. I try not to get upset about it. And in-your-dreams is not even the biggest problem in CTO hiring; even worse is making requirements that actively filter out the most promising candidates! This madness is yet another side effect of people without a technical bone in their bodies thinking they can manage it, because after all, technology is just another thing to manage. This absurdity is so widely accepted in management circles that even solid examples of how ridiculous it would be to act this way in other fields just whittle away at the deep-set conviction.
I know, I know, I'm being mean. The recruiters are, after all, doing the best they can with what they have to work with. They won't get very far with their customers (the companies doing the hiring) if they say "that's a stupid requirement, I won't put it in." And in the end, they're measured on the success of the person who eventually gets the job, which is way beyond a document -- which people don't take terribly seriously anyway.
But there's a serious point here anyway: the document could be meaningful and helpful if it specified something that could be satisfied by something less than a celestial being, and if people could get clear about avoiding "there are at least 15 top priority items here -- yes, they're all equally important!"