What a CTO does

cto-roleA chief technical officer or chief technology officer (CTO), is an executive position whose holder is focused on scientific and technical issues within an organization. Essentially, a CTO is responsible for the transformation of capital – be it monetary, intellectual, or political – into technology in furtherance of the company’s objectives. On what a CTO exactly does or what a CTO should do there are, of course I would say, different opinions and visions also depending on the nature and genesis of the organization:

L. Glassner (D2S) on what a CTO does: First it is to ensure that the company has the best technology. A high-tech company lives in a dynamically evolving space. There are lots of jobs in the company (indeed, hopefully all of them) that that impact competitiveness, but technology-related activities have one of the greater levers on how the company does in the marketplace. The company and network of suppliers and allies need to have the best technology for solving the customers’ problems. The best description of this was given to me by my friend Greg Papadopolous who was on the faculty at MIT with me many years ago and is now CTO of Sun Microsystems. He said, “Think it through by analogy. The CFO is not responsible for making revenue every quarter, but if there is a big surprise, fire him. The CTO is not responsible for delivering products every quarter, but if you miss the internet or a similar technical inflection point, fire him.” Indeed, I have often thought that asking what you should get fired for in a job is a great way to clarify your thinking about what is really important. Sometimes we spend a lot of time working on the wrong problems. Part of making sure one has the best technology involves reviewing programs and challenging teams. The greatest leverage is when the project is in its earliest phases, when we are deciding on architectures in the context of market requirements and when technology choices are being made. This is where you should see the CTO. Once there is a large marching army of engineers heading off in some direction, it is pretty difficult and expensive to make changes. Much better to get things sorted out early. It is what I call, “Get ‘em while they’re young.”

A second job of the office of the CTO is to create options for the Corporation. These can be options for existing businesses or options for new businesses. Let’s take two examples from Apple Computer. Several years ago someone at Apple created the option for OS-X to run on the x86 architecture (supplied by Intel and AMD). If the PowerPC teams had done their job completely, Apple would never have needed to switch. They didn’t, and Steve Jobs had an important option that he was able to exercise. This is an example of creating an option for an existing business. Apple also created the iPod, an option for a new business. Most companies need to create both types of options. More and more I believe that the CTO office needs to not only create options, but incubate (in partnership with Business Development and others) businesses that exploit technical breakthroughs. When I talk with other CTO’s around the country, this is the thinking that is becoming more and more common. New businesses are fragile. The CTO ends up be one of the chief stewards of innovation. To further this vector, many companies have business development report to the CTO.

Third, the CTO needs to attend to the health and well-being of the technical community. This cannot be taken for granted.

The CTO is also a public face of technology for the company. For a high-tech company, part of the brand is its technical prowess and insight. The CTO needs to represent this in numerous forums and conferences.

The last job of the CTO that I want to mention is strategic thinking. I passionately believe that this is a year-round activity. For companies that compete first and foremost by technical excellence, clearly the CTO needs to have a voice in the company strategy.

Finally, I am sometimes asked how one can tell if a CTO has power in the organization? That’s easy. If when a technical question arises in the course of a business discussion the CEO swivels her chair around to look at the CTO for advice, that CTO has power. If not, not. 

A. Marthur (Heidrick & Struggels) in an article on this subject citing CTO’s: Jay Hoti, CTO for NETs in Singapore says that he has a triple role. “Firstly, there is a need to partner with outside organizations and the CTO’s role is to find, develop and nurture these as the in-house teams tend to be focused on day-to-day projects.” he says. “CTOs have to plan for the change that will come from new project implementations to ensure service levels are not disrupted and that processes are modified to reflect new technology adoptions.”

He views this in what he calls are the 3 “T”s

• T1 is the current state which has to operate to existing performance requirements,

• T2 is where the new technology cuts over and is bedding in and

• T3 is where the investment of the new technology delivers the innovation that was expected 

With new technologies entering the market at a faster rate the CTO has to understand what these can do to keep the business at a competitive edge. Keeping abreast of these is challenging and then transitioning your people to adapt and become proficient is another. The CTO as the “Visionary Technologist” – that’s the third model. Here the CTO is critical in determining how technology can be used to implement the business strategy. Here he assumes the role of a “technology visionary” becoming more than just a technical guru. Visionary technologists are successful “managers” of organizations when they understand how technological instruments function in complex contexts, which include relationships among other assets. This requires an excellent combination of both business and technical skills in order to successfully design the functional and technical aspects of the business strategy and then build the IT organization to execute its components. 

Finally we have the CTO as the “Externally Focused Technologist”. In this model, the CTO’s main role is to develop the strategic technology plan for the organization by identifying, tracking, and experimenting with new and potentially disruptive technologies. Nearly every major IT consulting company implements this CTO role. In consulting companies, the CTO is usually an equal peer of the CIO or may be considered a higher-level executive than the CIO (although the CIO does not usually report to the CTO in this case).  

Recruiting for a CTO then requires a very divergent search strategy – one must search across multiple disciplines, sectors and geographies to find those that exhibit best practice and have the wealth and richness of experience required for this critical role. The common thread is to look for individuals, who have a broad base of experiences, rather than a narrow focus, as this is the best way to develop the necessary skills. 

CTOs need to be forward thinking but practical (i.e. linked to driving business results). They need to have an expert knowledge of technology, superior communication skills, and be business savvy. They’ve got to be an extrovert, willing to market or sell to the CEO or the investment community the benefits of using technology. 

Large companies often have divisions or business units, and they have their own goals. The CTO’s office is the one that sees across the board and needs to try to look at thegoals of the company, as opposed to the goals of an individual group. The ability tosee the big picture is also critical. It’s important for organizations to think strategicallyabout the relationship between technology and their leadership needs. In other words,they must assess what kind of technology leadership is required for the growth orstabilization of their company.

For available CTO positions take a look at Lintberg.

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