What is the role of a Chief Technology Officer (CTO)?

by | Oct 8, 2018

rawpixel-594848-unsplashYour guide to the increasingly critical executive position shaping the world of digital commerce.

A chief technology officer, or CTO, is the executive responsible for  coming up with a company’s technology strategy, leading engineering and technical teams, and ensuring their companies are effectively using tech resources. Their responsibilities vary from company to company; a CTO might oversee product strategy at a unicorn startup, or direct research and development for computer hardware manufacturers. In 2009, Barack Obama even went so far as to establish a federal CTO position in the president’s cabinet.

While their tasks and responsibilities may differ, chief technology officers can be identified by their ability to reconcile an organization’s long-term aspirations with its current technical resources – acting as a liaison between engineers, administrators, and company leadership. Before beginning the search for a CTO, check out our article on whether you need a CTO for your startup.

Finding a qualified CTO

Chief technology officers have highly varied responsibilities in different sectors. A candidate for a CTO position could specialize in, for example, information architecture, network management, or software design, based on a company’s needs for their product or service. A tech unicorn like Snap might, for example, hire a cutting-edge designer and developer, while an older firm, like IBM or SAP, might bring in a network architects as a CTO.

Differences in field aside, many technical executives have a strong academic background that might include a PhD or pioneering research. An advanced degree not only demonstrates technical proficiency, but also speaks to a CTO’s ability to conduct formal research, which can be effective in taking technology companies’ business to the next level – this article in Harvard Business Review goes into more detail.

In addition to high-level university work, chief technology officers usually have an impressive work history as both technologists and managers, both of which are essential to the CTO’s leadership roleand their  understanding of a firm’s technical operations.

Chief Technology Officers Care about Consumers

While the CTO position is essential in executive decisions, many chief technologists focus exclusively on software, which makes them better positioned to understand customers’ needs.

In the tech world, user feedback is arguably the most important force driving post-launch development. A great chief technology officer strives to  incorporate customer feedback into product strategy, which is essential for maintaining and growing a platform’s user base. In most software companies, chief technology officers often take a UX-centric approach, and they leverage their deep understanding of the platform to strategize and stage the development of desirable features.

Technical and business strategy doesn’t always run completely parallel with customer demand, but a talented CTO can help keep a company’s strategy aligned with their users’ needs, thereby retaining  users and building more successful tech products.

Safe and Secure with a CTO

The importance of cybersecurity can’t be understated. Digital security attacks are becoming exponentially more sophisticated, and, in turn, so are the tools to defeat them. Uber, Target, and Anthem Healthcare are just three of the major companies to have fallen victim to breaches, which can bring business to a standstill and put customers and employees at risk. To get up to speed on cybersecurity trends, this analysis from Booz Allen Hamilton details current cyber threats to businesses.

In response to an increase in security attacks, some companies are delegating cybersecurity responsibility to their CTO. A chief technology officer tasked with security would have a detailed understanding of data architecture, as well as risk management and digital intelligence. While it is a pretty recent market development, data security threats are becoming more formidable by the day, and we can expect an increased focus on security to become the new normal for tech executives.

This capacity in particular is one in which a CTO might fill two roles as both an information and technology officer, which happens often. Differences between a CTO and CIO depend a lot on a company’s nomenclature, but it’s useful to think of a CTO as an executive for software platforms, hardware, and other tech assets, and a CIO as a data strategist, in charge of communication and information management.

Chief Technology Officers and Influencers

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Uber CTO Thuan Pham gives a presentation at an industry event.

Especially at large tech companies, the CTO has an influential leadership role that can be as important as their official technical responsibilities. Extensive product design and development teams rely on their CTO to communicate ideas to executive boards, so professional management and personal skills are essential in an effective chief technologist. This is one of the many ways in which a CTO is much like other executives – to be successful, they need to combine strategic thinking with leadership and personal engagement.

This personal presence has helped several prominent chief technology officers rise to a level of public awareness and become notable figures in their field. For example, this interview with the CTO and co-founder of Snap, Bobby Murphy (@hellobobby), demonstrates the distinctive combination of technical background and communication skills that makes for an exceptional chief technology officer. The CTO’s social influence is especially observable in fast-growth startups; globally strong brands and popular platforms like Snap, SoundCloud, Codecademy, AirBnB, and Dropbox all had one of their cofounders take the role of CTO.

The Executive of the Future

While chief technology officers at different firms may have widely different realms of responsibility, adding a strategic-minded technologist to executive-level management decisions is critical for any vertical. As more business’ operations depend increasingly on internal networks, third-party software platforms, digital products, and hardware infrastructure, its strategy must reflect the realities of instant communication and commerce. Bringing in a CTO is an effective means to ensure compatibility between non-technical business executive choices and digital strategy, and, with the right candidate, revolutionize a firm’s activity independent of sector or scale.


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