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The Chief Technology Officer (CTO) is the person responsible for creating and managing the technologies that help a company achieve its goals. The position has a diverse set of responsibilities, which requires a varied skill set. They need to have technical vision, finely-honed management chops, a strong focus on the customer, and a broad but deep set of technical skills.
And just like the ever-changing field of technology, CTOs must be highly adaptable and able to switch gears as their jobs and the market dictate.
A CTO’s main responsibilities
A CTO wears many hats, and those hats will vary by company size, industry and needs of the business. It’s rarely a one-size-fits-all position. For example, a software startup’s CTO may manage the internal IT infrastructure, the products it develops for customers, and everything technological in between.
As the business grows, the CTO’s role will focus on the external, customer-facing side, while a Chief Information Officer (CIO), for example, will run the internal business systems such as HR, finance, marketing, security, and the help desk. This focus means the CTO will drive the company’s innovation of its products in the market.
These are the primary duties of a CTO:
- Develop the technical vision and strategy for the company
- Ensure technical strategy aligns with overall company goals
- Constant awareness of science and technology trends
- Develop and implements the company’s technology
- Collaborate with vendors and suppliers
- Supervise software testing and deployment
- Hire and mentor technical employees
- Identify and manage key performance indicators
- Build relationships with investors, partners, and customers
The skills of a CTO
It’s not enough to be a top programmer with decades of experience. To meet the responsibilities placed on them, CTOs must possess a range of hard and soft skills. In no particular order, these are the skills a CTO is expected to have:
- Strategic thinking: Because so much of a CTO’s job revolves around a product’s success and corresponding revenue, big picture astuteness is essential. This starts with answering some big-picture questions, such as, What are the company’s goals? Who are the competitors? What is the company’s competitive advantage? What will it take to reach our goals?
- Leadership: A good CTO understands that managing is a different skill to leading. As a leader, a CTO sets the technical vision for the company, and inspires those under them to share that vision. A good leader motivates, influences, listens, mentors, asks, trusts, empathizes, assists, educates and openly communicates with their team to turn a vision into reality.
- Technical ability: A CTO is usually competent in areas like software development, network architecture, artificial intelligence and cyber security. Most will have experience building reliable and scalable, commercially successful technology. Most will be experienced coders, however, the larger the company, the less likely it is that they will be using this skill on a regular basis.
- Communication: CTOs interact with a medley of people — other executives, investors, engineers, marketers, salespeople and customers, to name a few — so they must be able to speak two languages: technical and non-technical. Each of these audiences require different use of language, depending on the level of their technical knowledge, so the CTO must be fluent in both to communicate technical messages effectively.
- Organization: With so many moving parts flowing from different departments, a CTO must be able to hover above it all to prioritize and not get overwhelmed. Effective time management is a critical part of this skill.
- Business acumen: Budgets, return on investment (“ROI”), key performance indicators (“KPIs”), profit and loss statements (P&Ls), customer life cycle, buyer personas and sales cycles, are some of the business terms a CTO will have to be fluent in, especially as they relate to the overall strategy and profit goals of the business.
How to become a CTO
Most CTOs earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science, engineering or other science fields. Just as technology is evolving so are the degree fields with specialties in cybersecurity, data science and management information systems. Increasingly, companies are also looking for people who have advanced degrees in computer science or an MBA because of its focus on preparing business managers and leaders.
The CTO career path varies by industry, company size and other factors such as timing, luck, and opportunity. For example, if someone joins a small, fast growing start up without a CTO, they could end up in the role very quickly. However, in most cases CTOs are expected to climb the same ladder as any other C-level position.
Outliers aside, this is an example CTO career path for someone who works in technology roles:
- Software Engineer
- Software Project Manager
- Director of Engineering
- VP of Engineering
Here’s another example CTO career path for someone who toggles from technology roles to product and back to technology:
- Software Developer
- Engineering Manager
- Product Marketing Manager
- SVP of Product
- VP of R&D
If you're thinking about your own path to the CTO spot, it's probably a good idea to see where you stand at your job today and how you might progress. One easy way to do that is to join your company's public org chart.
Career paths of big company CTOs
Not all CTOs follow the same path. These three examples show how varied the journeys can be from the time spent programming to the number of different CTO positions held in a career.
- Cal Henderson co-founded Slack in 2013 and has remained their CTO ever since. He got his start as a programmer in 1999 before becoming technical director for a UK media company. He then had a stint as director of web development for Ludicorp, the company responsible for Flickr where he was also the lead developer. After Yahoo! acquired Ludicorp in 2005, Henderson became the web giant’s Director of Engineering before co-founding Tiny Speck, the precursor to Slack. Prior to all of this, he earned a BSc from the University of Central England.
- Before becoming CTO of Airbnb, Aristotle Balogh worked as VP of Engineering at Google and led storage and network infrastructure teams. He held previous CTO positions with both Yahoo! and Verisign. At Verisign Balogh also held several other leadership roles in engineering and infrastructure. He holds both a BS and MSE in electrical and computer engineering from Johns Hopkins University.
- Chris Wright, CTO of Red Hat, started his career in 1995 as a lab technician for Intel. He then spent the next 10 years as a software developer for various companies, working primarily with Linux. Wright joined Red Hat in 2005 as a technical lead in virtualization and cloud engineering and then took on several director roles until being promoted to CTO in 2014. He has a BS in physics.
Technology is one of the fastest growing job segments in the US, ranking 6th among 22 job categories since 2010. With this growth, it will come as no surprise that IT leaders are well-compensated. According to salary.com, a CTO’s average base salary in the U.S. is $277,000 and jumps to $353,000 when you add annual cash incentives. In big companies, CTO salaries can get much larger than this.
What’s the difference between a CTO and CIO?
The CIO (Chief Information Officer) manages a company’s internal IT infrastructure including the programs, people, and processes associated with it. They are more focused on the operational aspects of IT such as creating efficiencies, cutting costs, and working with internal users rather than external customers. The CTO creates a vision for a company’s products and then executes that vision working with internal teams to develop products for external customers.
Who does a CTO report to?
Often, a CTO reports to the company’s CIO. However, if no CIO position exists, a CTO may report directly to the CEO.
Types of CTOs
With the rise of information technology, companies across sectors — but particularly companies with focuses on scientific and electronic products — hire CTOs who become responsible for the oversight of technical intellectual property.
However, the responsibilities and role of the CTO depend on the company. There are typically four different kinds of CTOs.
1. Infrastructure overseer
The infrastructure overseer is responsible for the company’s data, maintenance,security and the company’s network. They may set or implement the company’s technical strategy and manage the company’s technological roadmap.
2. Strategic planner
This type of CTO is responsible for setting the technical strategy for the company, envisioning how the company will implement and use technology.
3. Consumer liaison
In this role, a CTO liaises between the business and the customer, absorbing the responsibilities of customer success or customer relations, delivering IT projects to market.
Here, a CTO sets up corporate strategy and fuels technological infrastructure, creating new business models. They also maintain a close relationship with the CEO and other senior leadership.