The rise of the CTO (Chief Technology Officer)

I’ll lay my cards on the table to start with. I’m a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and have been for a number of years now, so I’m obviously a little biased but I’ll try and be as balanced as possible here.

What is a Chief Technology Officer (CTO)?

A Chief Technology Officer or CTO is responsible for a companies technological needs as well as its research and development (R&D). It’s a strategic role that plans the short and long-terms needs of the organisation to achieve its objectives. As executive roles go it’s pretty new, becoming more common over the last 10–15 years as technology requirements have increased.

The CTO does not traditionally look after internal operations or procedures, that’s usually the responsibility of the Chief Information Officer(CIO), but it does happen and I’ve performed that role as well as the CTO previously.

As a CTO you look externally and develop services and products that clients and customers will use. R&D is a major focus of the CTO where you are constantly looking to improve your services and try new solutions.

Personally the role of the CTO is incredibly exciting. The ability to try new things and constantly innovate is hugely motivating. Building a team around you that are focused on producing awesome services is very rewarding. The role is not without is stresses though.

Responsibilities

As CTO, everything technological is ultimately your responsibility. If something breaks it’s on you to fix it, quick. Every seconds of downtime is costly, therefore designing, testing and disaster recovery become the core of everything you do.

But it’s not all about keeping the lights on, you’re expected to generate revenue and promote growth for the company. The products and services you create need to be sold to and used by clients, this means working with other departments. You need a complete understanding of how business works, it’s not enough to just be great with technology, you must appreciate and understand sales, marketing, HR, support and finance to name a few. You need to understand how each department can help your team and also the company as a whole. It’s like playing chess, aligning the pieces into the correct position in order to succeed.

The CTO traditionally reports to the CIO but can also report to the CEO. Personally I do feel the CTO should report directly to the CEO, as should the CIO, but both work very closely together. The CEO should have a direct relationship with technology, it’s such a fundamental of modern business.

What do you need to be a CTO?

Here’s the textbook answer;

  • A degree in a computer-science related field and possibly a masters.
  • 15 years or so experience in IT and business.
  • Leadership & Management
  • Business Strategy

Here’s what I’ve experienced;

  • At least 10 years experience in IT and business,
  • A qualification in IT such as a degree or professional accreditations.
  • Massive amounts of passion and drive, the ability to pick yourself back up and go again repeatedly.
  • A leader that can make decisions, often on the spot, who’s accountable and able to develop strategies for the business.
  • Not just comfortable with change but one that seeks it. Technology evolves so fast that you need to be able to keep up and adapt constantly.

Most of the time you are dealing with admin and developing strategies rather than direct involvement with product development or implementation. If you want to keep hands on with technology and development then the role of CTO is not for you.

Does my company need a CTO?

I’m obviously going to say yes, but given what’s happened over the last 18 months and the major shift to adopting new technology, I’d say it’s more important than ever to make the CTO a core part of your business. You will see a big return if you hire a great CTO. Even if you aren’t selling digital services a CTO can really drive your business both internally and externally.

How do I become a CTO?

The $64 million dollar question. Honest answer? There’s no quick solution, it’s hard work and effort like most things. You have to have the drive to become a CTO as with any Chief level position. You need broad shoulders to handle the pressure and responsibility it brings.

Start by understanding every aspect of business. How does sales work? Why do we need marketing? What’s a balance sheet? What’s a first response SLA? Having an appreciation and understanding of business as a whole will set you up for the future. Start to look at existing services and solutions and think how can this be improved? What would you change and why? Why would someone pay for this service and not that?

Read a lot, not just books but blogs, articles, newsletters, follow technology companies and try to understand what they are planning to release in the next 3–5 years. Look at the business you currently work for and think about how new technology releases could be implemented to improve it.

Some parts will be more natural that others, in time it’ll become second nature. Great CTOs constantly ask questions, they seek to understand rather than instantly provide a solution. Learn from other CTOs, never be the cleverest person in the room, get out of your comfort zone, make mistakes, own them and learn from them.

Diversity

Sadly, as with most of the technology sector, this is where we let ourselves down. I can count on one hand the amount of people I’ve met at CTO networking events that are not white men. It is terrible and drastically needs improving. Approx 18% of CTOs world wide are women, this simply isn’t good enough. The best teams I’ve had around me had a diverse mix of people and I’ve needed that balance to challenge me and hold me accountable.

As technology leaders we need to lead the change, we have to set the bar for others to follow. The days of the ‘old boys’ club have to go. We need to nurture talent early, change our recruitment processes to remove bias, both conscious and unconscious.

There’s a long way to go but it has to change and those who do will succeed.

Even though I’ve worked in technology for nearly 20 years I’m still learning. In fact if I didn’t keep learning new things I’d be bored, it’s one of the reasons why I love being a CTO. Building the team around you and seeing everyone getting excited about a product release or major milestone is worth all the stress and effort.

If your business doesn’t have a CTO then I’d ask the question why?

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