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What is a CTO or Chief Technology Officer?

A Chief Technology Officer, or CTO, manages the IT related elements of a business, proves oversight, and focuses on future business needs.

Specific job responsibilities include:

  • Defining technology goals
  • Establishing a technology strategy
  • Implementing new infrastructure
  • Securing data and maintaining networks
  • Proposing technological improvements
  • Developing technology as it relates to external customers
  • Directing projects in accordance with customer audience
  • Reviewing and request budgets
  • Knowledge of network architecture, big data, information security management, and software development.
  • Thought leadership and innovation

What combination of education, skills and experience are necessary for this role?

Education: The vast majority of CTOs have earned a bachelors degree in computer sciences. Candidates with higher degrees (masters or MBA) may be preferred.

In addition, some CTOs may also have specific certifications pertaining to a desired role.  For example, a CTO may have a certification for the governance of enterprise IT or a certification in information security management.

Skills that the CTO role requires include:

  • Technical abilities (Agile, JavaScript and machine learning are the top three that employers look for)
  • Strong communication skills
  • Superior problem solving abilities
  • Management experience

Experience: Typically, candidates need seven or more years of engineering and IT related experience. Other ‘must haves’ include leadership abilities, an organized approach, project management skills, communication skills and the capacity to confidently make responsible business decisions.

Who does this person typically report to? CTOs generally report to CEOs, but there are exceptions.

Research from Deloitte indicates that organizations in which the CTO reports to the CEO are more likely to have comprehensive, organization-wide technology strategies than organizations with alternative reporting structures.

What is the history of the CTO role?

In the period after WWII, when it came to creating new technologies and management practices, the US was losing ground to other nations. To counterbalance this trend, US-based companies began to focus on new product development techniques, inventing a role that involved overseeing all technology infrastructures and research. From this role eventually emerged that of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO), in the 1980’s.

The CTO still oversees all technological implementation and advances within an organization. When technologies shift, the CTO is responsible for directing teams in navigating new systems, processes and procedures.

What does the future of the CTO role look like?

  • Will spend more time focusing on tech innovation
  • The role may be recast, and CTOs may be the new “Chief Innovation Officers
  • As CTOs gain business acumen, they may evolve into tomorrow’s CEOs. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, digital solutions for businesses are growing in popularity. The number of roles available to CTOs and the growth opportunities within those roles are expected to expand in the coming years.

What challenges does the CTO typically face?

  • Ensuring operational alignment between C-level priorities and the digital team
  • Adding to top-line growth
  • Managing with aging infrastructure

Who typically reports to the CTO?

This varies based on the size and priorities of the company, but the CTO typically oversees all engineers and technology related departments.

The role of a CTO at a startup:

A CTO of a startup will need to lead exceedingly diverse initiatives. Part of the role is being comfortable with responsibilities that go beyond comfort zones.

Within the startup environment, the CTO may not only be responsible for technical leadership, but the individual will also be responsible for operational management, strategic management, managing IT hiring processes, coaching and mentoring  developers, choosing appropriate stacks, and more. As RubyGarage points out, “…CTOs at some of the world’s most successful unicorns have mostly management-related missions.”

A Chief Software Architect vs CTO:

Chief Software Architect is usually early in his/her career. In contrast, a CTO typically retains extensive experience and a proven track-record.

Notable quotes about the CTO role:

“This has evolved into a critically strategic role. Moreover, the breadth and reach of technology is greater than any time in our history, adding to the criticality of the role and decisions. CTO’s have the position and potential to be significant game-changers for enterprises by keeping their focus on the T in their title” – Cyber security evangelist, Grant A.

“In this day in age, the largest challenge that comes with the responsibility of making executive technology decisions may be monthly shifts in technology and the threat landscape.”  -Cyber security evangelist, Mark O.

“CTOs are like duct tape. They are adhesive, tough, and they hold the world together!” -Cyber security evangelist, Edwin D.