Chief Technology Officer: Understanding the Main Tech Person In a Company
With tech companies now among the largest businesses in the world, CTOs are some of the most influential and innovative people, those that shape how we live and work. With the technology outlook for the future, these people will drive the striking change both within the company and beyond.
Often considered the company’s tech guru or the smartest programmer in the room, the title of CTO alone indicates that the company is doing something big with technology.
With this article, we’ll dip a toe into the pool of the multiple responsibilities of an average CTO. We’ll describe each of the most popular hats that this C-level executive has to wear.
The role of CTO
A Chief Technology Officer (sometimes called Chief Technical Officer) is the most skilled technology person in the company. If it’s a tech startup, a CTO is usually a cofounder, the main thinker behind the product. In an older organization, this is a C-level executive who investigates the technology trends and implements them within the product in accordance with the product vision, strategy, and roadmap.
CTO vs CIO vs VP of Engineering vs Technical director
As many other roles used in the startup era, CTO’s responsibilities sometimes overlap with other roles and duties. They are often confused with CIOs, VPs of Engineering, or Technical Directors. Traditionally, these roles were established to have different responsibilities, but in many companies, the borders blur. Sometimes, organizations can afford just one specialist who will do the job of CTO and VP, so they simply call this person a CTO. Either way, here’s an alignment of tasks to give you a clear distinction.
The picture depicts the customary place of CTO in a tech company hierarchy
Chief Technology Officer – tech strategy. A CTO is the main tech person in the boardroom. In a tech product company, their role intersects with the role of a Chief Product Officer. In other organizations, they are often doing the job traditionally allocated to CIOs.
Chief Information Officers – tech infrastructure. Responsible for the company’s inner IT ecosystem, think of them as an evolved version of an IT guy. As businesses started relying on technology more, their role grew to the C-level. The CIO advises on enterprise software, anticipates security and integration problems, and studies the advantages of trending technologies.
VP of Engineering – tech team management. If a CTO is an enthusiast, then the VP of Engineering is a great manager. These two people can be peers or report to one another, and often, one can do the job of both, regardless of the title. Still, the VP is responsible for recruiting for the tech team, reacting to issues in development, and establishing the KPIs and deadlines. In smaller organizations, a CTO can perform these tasks.
Technical director – tech advisor on a team. Another leading technical role often confused with a CTO is the technical director. First things first, a TD is not strictly a software development title. This is a role of someone who provides technical support, manages production teams, and serves as the main tech expert for the team to refer to. Not every project needs one. In smaller teams, a CTO can overlook all tech decisions and management. Which brings us to the next question.
CTO tasks and responsibilities
In companies like Amazon, Google, or Facebook, CTOs create products that have a larger vision behind them. Werner Vogels was responsible for driving cloud computing with Amazon Web Services. Mark Schroepfer has led the development of Facebook’s AI screening algorithms. The rest of CTOs work on a narrower scope, leading the technology efforts of the company.
In terms of tasks, there are two distinctions to be made. There are digital product companies, where CTOs are responsible for product design and are focused on the customer. And there are non-tech companies, where a CTO manages engineering efforts in the organization and makes sure that the digital part of the product works. We look at the full scope of responsibilities.
Code and test. A CTO is basically a mature developer. In smaller companies or startups, a CTO is supposed to write the source code and work on its improvement. This also means doing manual testing and writing scripts for automation tests.
“Are you still a coder?” by CommitStrip
Do software health checks. A health check is a set of procedures performed after the software or its updates are released. A CTO decides what metrics you should track and what requirements a system needs to fulfill to be considered healthy.
Schedule and perform the release. A CTO is supposed to assess the timeframes for the development team and is responsible for every release the company does. A lot of scheduling is done along with a product manager who compiles a product roadmap.
People management tasks
Allocate tasks. In larger organizations and enterprises, a VP of Engineering will be the team manager, but in many cases, a CTO is planning what tasks the engineering and design teams will end up doing.
Mentor tech employees. A CTO may also help with onboarding new engineers, such as writing training programs for them, having occasional interpersonal talks to them, or simply help them cope with engineering challenges.
Serve as the development supervisor. In addition to regular sync ups with the dev team, a CTO also has to guarantee that the team keeps in line with the code standards and development protocol. Executing code reviews is also crucial here.
Employ tech talent. The CTO also has to execute or at least assess the tech talent acquisition. His point of view is critical when making hiring decisions.
Product management tasks
Run the product development from the initiation. The CTO develops and supports the product since its inception, almost always closely connected with a Chief Product Officer. He has the final word when selecting the technology, developing a tech product vision, strategy, and roadmap.
Take part in user research. As a product driver, a CTO has to concentrate on a customer-technology interaction. On the other hand, a CTO keeps track of customer wants and needs to ensure product success on the market.
Make decisions about the product’s future. A CTO has to track the product success, monitor product management metrics, and correct the tech strategy if needed.
System architecture tasks
Choose technology and tools. In addition to selecting the infrastructure and languages for product development, the CTO is supposed to decide on testing options, IDEs, database solutions, etc.
Introduce a development roadmap. As the main system architect, a CTO has to propose the prioritization of the product features to other C-level executives so that they realize further pathways and steps that must be taken for product development.
Set the criteria. The CTO implements the coding standards and introduces the development protocols to adhere to. This will ensure that the source tech strategy will stay safe.
Make decisions about product improvements. When the R&D team introduces a new feature or a system element that affects the source code or how other elements interact, a CTO assesses all consequences and makes the final decision.
Business development tasks
Advocate for the company’s tech successes. The CTO is supposed to represent the company in narrowly-selected tech associations and technology-related conferences to show presence on the market and promote the company’s tech achievements.
Scale the technology within the company. A CTO has to observe the market for related technology solutions, learn if they suit the company’s tech strategy and set the acquisition goals.
Foresee tech trends. It is also important for CTOs to predict technology’s application for business. This may include long-term tech trends or the impact of the technology element on a company’s roadmap.
Skills and experience required to become a CTO
A lot of C-level positions are filled by someone within the company: Successful team leads or tech-skilled product managers often grow to become CTOs. On a smaller scale, a CTO can be the only person capable to be one. So, what makes them capable?
Technological awareness. To make better technology strategy decisions, a CTO must be aware of both emerging and existing technologies. This usually includes programming languages and frameworks
Coding skills. Generally, a chief technology officer has a degree in computer science or engineering, has a strong knowledge of software architecture, design, and programming. Since a CTO should solve engineering problems, a solid development background is required.
Business awareness. Some business prowess allows the CTO to match the business goals with end-user requirements.
Product management knowledge. After all, a CTO applies all their technical knowledge, builds the strategy, and deals with business processes to create and enhance the final product. Here, understanding the product life cycle and knowledge of the market and its needs are important.
Team management. Sure, CTOs can’t do the whole engineering thing by themselves. That’s why they have their R&D departments prepared. To run technology strategy implementation smoothly, CTOs have to know the team members’ strengths and weaknesses. Above that, CTOs have to identify the skills at the stage of searching, obtaining, and retaining the tech force. This will help delegate tasks and decide on further steps properly.
Where do CTOs come from? Career background
What makes a CTO? Well, a CTO is passionate about and has an expert view of the tech environment. If you’re planning to employ such a person on your C-level team, look for them among the following roles.
CTOs at global brands and their backgrounds
As CIOs are responsible for choosing a technology for a company’s infrastructure, it’s reasonable that one day they can become a CTO. Besides that, the responsibilities and duties sometimes overlap, especially in smaller companies. Those CIOs wishing to become CTOs have to grasp a broader vision of technologies on the market, level up the team management skills, and understand how the end-user can interact with the product and technology.
This is also a possible pathway for prospective CTOs. They’ve already got the tech and business parts covered. To continue their path as a CTO, a solution architect has to improve their team management skills, learn the product life cycle, and understand market needs. We have a video explaining the role of solution architects that’s worth taking a look at.
R&D team leads
The tech team lead already knows how to interact with their teams and manage them. Strong engineering skills are also part of their skill set. Above that, R&D leaders are supposed to interact with stakeholders, albeit not on a daily basis, so the business side is partially covered. What they mostly need is a strong understanding of the market and product-user interaction.
When to hire CTOs and whether you need one at all
Don’t make a mistake of employing a CTO just because every Silicon Valley company seems to have one. If you do think you need this person, do it for one of the following reasons.
You lack tech knowledge for your startup and need a technical co-founder. Chesky and Gebbia invited Nathan Blecharczyk, who coded the company’s early website, to be Airbnb’s first CTO.
You don’t have a technical advisor in the boardroom. In 2015, Starbucks hired their first CTO, Gerri Martin-Flickinger, to help the company innovate digitally. In the following years, it launched a customer-facing app that became the most globally used payment app.
You plan to build a strong tech team in-house. That’s what Into the Gloss did when they hired Bryan Mahoney in 2014. Just a few months later they launched Glossier, which turned into an eCommerce skincare giant.