CTO as a Service – 2020 Recap

2020!!! What a year it was!!!! I hope there will never be another year like this one!

That being said …. it was actually a great year for CTO as a Service.

A Bit of Background

First, a bit of a recap about CTO as a Service for those encountering me for the first time. I spent 30 years in the world of computers, as a developer, the owner of a software company, a consultant, and for the past 15 years, Chief Architect or CTO to some very large companies and some very small companies. In November 2018, having reached several milestones that were set out early in my career, I decided to leave the workforce.

For years, people had asked me to listen to their ideas and help them create apps around these ideas. I was too busy with my regular job responsibilities to take on a part-time gig, but I told these people that they could buy me a few drinks and I would tell them how to go about building the app. When I left the workforce, I decided to “hang a shingle” outside my door and advertise myself as “CTO as a Service”. I would spend a few hours a week with each client, and I would do everything from soup-to-nuts (except writing the code, because my clients could get good coding talent from an offshore dev shop at a fraction of what they pay me). I would help them write the business requirements, hire the development team, write the technical architecture, set up the cloud infrastructure, and manage the development team.

My goal was to spend no more than 20 hours per week helping startups. I hoped to be able to make a bit of beer money and to occupy my mind with some interesting problems.

Utah or Bust

2019 was my first full year and I was fortunate to have a few good clients to keep me busy. I was able to take the month of February off and go to New Zealand and Australia and hike the 5-day Milford Track trail.

In September 2019, my wife and I decided to try the snowbird thing for the first time, and we booked a home through HomeAway in St George, Utah. The plan was that we were going to stay there for 2 months. I would work in the morning and spend the afternoon hiking. Of course, nobody expected a little news item to hit the airwaves as soon as I got out to Utah. That little piece of news was about some virus that was running around China.

St. George is tucked in the southwest corner of the state, and we were at least 150 miles from any population center (Las Vegas, Nv). I didn’t worry much about the pandemic, and I carried on with my plan. Mornings were spent with a few clients, which included a real-estate company that used VR to show apartments, an investment platform for people who want to invest in ESG-related stocks, an FX Hedging platform, and a few other minor ones. I was also starting with a new client who was developing a platform for meditation and wellness.

On February 15th, everything was locked-down in NYC. My daughter’s medical school rotations were canceled, and she took a flight the next day to St. George. She booked a 1-week ticket, hoping that things would return to normal soon. She ended up spending 2-½ months with us in Utah!

Petrified Dunes, Snow Canyon State Park, Ivins, Utah

The Startup Craze

I thought that my business would go under. Who would want to embark on a new startup during a pandemic? Well, I was wrong. In the 2 weeks following the start of the lockdown, I signed 4 new clients. 

  1. An InsureTech startup whose mission was to put sensors in various businesses and warn the owners about abnormal conditions in their business. They would work with various Property and Casualty providers in the insurance space to promote the use of this iOS platform with the providers’ customers. This was an interesting project because it exposed me to the world of Samsung SmartThings sensors. The platform was based on AWS Lambda, DynamoDB, and Kinesis.
  2. A wellness startup founded by a gynecologist that wanted to educate high school students about sex education. They came to me with a little bit of code that was written by a consultant. I hired the development team for the founders, ran a few meetings, and then stepped back. The gynecologist and his partner decided that they could be project managers!
  3. Another wellness startup that matched couples who were having pregnancy-related issues with health providers. Another project where I did everything from soup-to-nuts. I wrote the BRD, designed the architecture, hired the development team, and ran the project. 
  4. A platform that lets businesses register “phrases” and websites associated with those phrases. When someone talks into their mobile device, they can phrase a question (i.e., show me the best Japanese restaurant in NYC) and the platform would see if that phrase matched any of their licensed phrases, and if so, brings up the associated website.
  5. I also did a few tech assessments for some private equity firms.

I could not explain the sudden surge in business. My guess is that the impending pandemic motivated people who had ideas to finally take their shot at realizing their dreams. Kind of a “now or never” attitude.

Meanwhile, our host in Utah, seeing how the pandemic was hitting NYC, graciously offered to extend our stay indefinitely. We ended up spending an amazing additional two months out there, waking up every morning to red-colored mountains staring us in the face.

Backle to The Apple

At the end of May, we packed the car and spent 5 days driving back to NYC. The drive eastward out of Taos, New Mexico was one of the most picturesque drives I have ever made. The flat openness of eastern New Mexico is really something to behold. An unexpected pleasure was driving through West Virginia, where there is no such thing as a level road.

Outside of Taos, NM

We got back to NYC on the first night of the curfew (due to the riots and looting associated with the killing of George Floyd, amongst others). I was the only car driving through the Holland Tunnel in the middle of rush hour, and it was an eerie feeling. I could never envision NYC as a ghost town, but there it was. It was certainly quite a shock after being relatively isolated in Utah for the past 4 months.

Continuing On

I started with yet another new client, a Canadian architecture firm that wanted to modernize their old ASP.NET/PHP app. I hired my go-to development firm, and we dug right into porting the platform to ASP.NET Core and EntityFramework Core.

Soon after, an old colleague called me to tell me that the Principal Engineer of his company had left and that they needed someone to fill in for a while. This company was not a startup … they are a mid-sized company devoted to HR and Payroll software.

An old client from England got in touch with me to say that he had secured some funding and asked me to help him. His mission was to do financial planning and budget for people in the lower-income bracket in England. A very worthy mission. The interesting aspect of this app is that it is totally driven by WhatsApp.

Over the summer, I started with a new client whose mission was to gameify the employee education experience. We built a VR world in which employees walk through, clicking on objects within a virtual office and “playing” knowledge-based game. This was a microservice-based architecture, with ASP.NET Core on the backend, MongoDB as the persistence layer, and React/Unity on the frontend. I did the usual tasks … BRD, hiring and running the dev team.

I got another client in a very interesting way. That client was using an offshore dev shop. This client got into a dispute with the dev shop over the hours that were billed, and the dev shop made a copy of their Github repo and deleted the client’s repo. The client did not know how to get their code back, and they were in a bad predicament. I managed to recover their code and helped them hire a new dev shop. Meanwhile, I did a tech assessment of their platform and the code that the old dev shop wrote and came up with a roadmap for future development.

I was hired for a few more tech assessments by a VC firm. The great thing about these assessments is that I am often exposed to new domains and new technologies. 2 of the assessment were for firms in the InsureTech space, and the other was for a company that provided parking technology. I got to learn a bit about LPR (License Plate Recognition) technology and the associated hardware. I also got a chance to re-learn a bit of Scala and Akka

I ended the year with a brand new client who is building an app for the real-estate space, with the idea of making complex real estate transactions more friendly. Anyone who has gone through the process of buying or selling a home should be interested in this app. Another soup-to-nuts project for me. I even got a chance to write some Typescript/NodeJS code.

I start 2021 with a new client from Toronto who is building an app in the vacation/experience space. I am very excited to be taking them on this journey.

Final Thoughts

In summary … I had 15 different clients in 2020. If I extrapolate my revenue to a 40 hour week, then it was quite a good year on a financial basis. I only wish that we could leave our apartment in NYC so that I could enjoy it!

One of the great things about being an interim CTO is the fact that I get exposed to so many new domains and technologies. 2020 featured technologies having to do with VR, IoT, image recognition, and more. InsureTech is hot, as is the very-needed area of wellness.

Not everything is a bowl of gravy. One thing that is certain to make the voyage rougher is when a non-technical founder, in order to save costs, decides to take on the project and dev-team management duties themselves. There are many aspects to managing a dev team that have to be learned over a long period of time. Developers, especially off-shore developers, get extremely frustrated when they don’t see the proper leadership at the helm, much like musicians would rebel if I got up in front of the New York Philharmonic and started conducting the orchestra.

I am supremely grateful that The Fates smiled down on me and gave me a prosperous year amongst all of the sorrow that was happening in the world. Let’s hope for a much more sane and safe 2021.

Marc Adler

CTO as a Service

February 1, 2021