Technology has become intertwined with business, and the primary role of a chief technology officer (CTO) is to make sure tech strategy aligns with a company’s overall goals. That doesn’t always mean a CTO oversees the IT department or help desks. Instead, they blend knowledge of existing and emerging technology to provide a business with the best solutions possible for the future.
Matt Mead, CTO of Chicago-based digital consultancy SPR, said the CTO role is an important part of company cohesion.
“I think the CTO can be the glue between technology implementation and product strategy, and can sort of make things really come together and come to life in a way that you don’t see in a lot of organizations today,” he said.
Not every company needs a CTO, but if you’re running a nimble startup or a business that deals technology and reliable data, a CTO can help provide guidance. Mead said some companies that aren’t traditional technology companies, but rather “data hubs for an industry,” may need a CTO to ensure the technology they want to establish is in line with business goals and isn’t set up in a haphazard way.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are approximately 482,000 computer and information systems managers in the U.S. However, a CTO does a bit more than an IT manager. At the same time, their role is different from the chief executive.
A CTO must:
An important distinction to keep in mind is that not all CTOs manage the IT side of a business. While some CTOs manage help desk professionals and make decisions about the tech tools companies use, many businesses are opting to let a chief information officer (CIO) handle these things. The CIO focuses distinctly on IT and ensures those issues are in line with company goals.
“I think the CIO role is evolving as well, but I think the CIO role is more infrastructure, keeping the lights on, creating efficiencies from sort of an IT implementation and operations perspective,” Mead said.
A CTO focuses on product and strategy, according to Mead, whereas a CIO may be more focused on day-to-day operations. This means the CTO’s focus is not on day-to-day tech issues, but rather the bigger picture.
Ideally, the CTO and CIO roles work together to create cohesion within the company, but there may be times when CTOs must step into the day-to-day operations. The two jobs often overlap in responsibilities, and your part of the equation may vary by where you work.
You don’t become a CTO overnight. Those who love all things IT will likely already have the knowledge needed to land a position with a company. You’ll also need to start small, learn the ropes and work your way up into a management position.
One of the most important distinctions of the CTO role is that it’s focused on the future. Mead said that he generally plans three or even six months ahead. This provides the company with direction, and it also means the CTO needs to constantly be aware of updates to existing technology. Mead said this can be a demanding task, with software like Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services experiencing constant changes and updates.
“If I had to dumb down my role to one sentence, it’s to keep SPR relevant,” he said. “What that means is we have to be … looking out on the horizon and keeping an eye on things that are coming – tools and techniques and technology, specifically.”
It also means the CTO needs to have a grip on emerging tech trends to move a business (or client) into the most successful position. The space and manpower needed to run a physical data center are massive. At some point, there will be no more room to build new data centers, but the demand for data storage will continue increasing. How will CTOs handle such shifts in data management?
“We have our annual plan, and we break it down to the areas we sort of want to work on,” Mead said. “I feel like I really, really understand well what it is we’re trying to do organizationally, and so the strategies that I’m putting in place fit into and are in alignment with our priorities as an organization.”
By handling direction and vision, the CTO can work closely with the CEO to make sure there’s progress toward the company’s ultimate goals. This means that the CTO should be on a level playing field with the other chief executives, according to Mead. This allows company leadership to collaborate on financial decisions and company direction.
A CTO must be a forward-thinking individual with excellent communication and organizational skills. They are often former developers or project managers.
Most companies hiring a CTO want candidates with at least a bachelor’s degree and tons of IT management experience. Landing a position with a top employer is competitive. Even after you finish your education, you can’t stop learning. You must stay on top of the latest trends and gain valuable time on the job.
Another important responsibility of the CTO is to be the face of technology for the company. This means attending conferences to not only learn more about important technology news, but also to represent the company’s technology initiatives within a certain market. Mead said that he attends conferences and seminars, and speaks to the media to represent SPR’s technology and business goals.
Find a mentor in the field and learn as much as possible. Network with business leaders and discover their greatest needs in the IT field. Strive to learn solutions to their problems so you can add value to your resume.
Make learning about technology management and brushing up on people skills your top hobbies. Join a speaking club, take a Dale Carnegie course, or join a hobby group for IT enthusiasts. The more time you spend building your skills, the better you’ll be able to problem-solve on the fly.
The CTO is a vital executive role focused on developing long-term technology goals, staying abreast of industry tech trends, and working with other executives on a company’s direction. While not every company needs a CTO, this role can enhance the alignment between a product or service’s strategy and a company’s technology strategy.
Shannon Flynn contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.