What is a CTO?

What is a CTO?

What is a CTO?

A “C” at the beginning of a three-letter acronymized title generally tells you at least one thing: the person is in charge of something significant. This is certainly true for CTOs. Traditionally, a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) strategizes and leads activities related to your IT infrastructure and innovation, primarily as they relate to external activity and delivered services and products.

Unfortunately, “technology” and “innovation” can be nebulous terms in today’s business world. Further complicating the CTO role, your needs for the position may differ from others’ depending on the IT leaders comprising your team.

So, what do CTO responsibilities generally include, and how do their collaborative efforts affect others?

The CTO Role Defined

If it pertains to the services and products you offer, there’s a strong likelihood that it falls under the CTO’s purview. Your CTO takes an active role in guiding team and technology decisions specifically aimed at increasing market competitiveness, beneficial partnerships, and revenue.

To do so effectively, a CTO must be able to:

  1. Discover any impactful and disruptive industry trends
  2. Determine whether disruptions represent opportunities, threats, or both
  3. Pursue new technologies and processes that will optimize service and product development
  4. Collaborate with other executives and teams to remain aligned with business goals
  5. Champion developed services and products externally

As a leader and strategist, a CTO must be extremely well-versed in the latest technology developments and trends. As an executive, they must know how to maximize their team’s capabilities and the support they receive. Finally, as a champion of customer-facing initiatives, they must frame impact and value that generate interest and increase conversions.

In essence, a CTO acts as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of your organization’s service and product development. 

#1 Discovering Disruptions

Aside from an admittedly cool name, no one wants to be the next LaserDisc-level cautionary tale. Despite providing higher quality media, the technology’s cost, limitations, later market arrival than VCRs, and eventual replacement with DVDs sunk the platform.

With the right CTO, however, challenges like LaserDisc’s can be identified and mitigated, if not avoided entirely.

Your CTO needs more technology trend insight and expertise than a daily news feed can provide. They must discover and interpret trends when determining and mapping dynamic short- and long-term strategies that achieve or maintain market leadership within your industry.

Broadly, CTOs should be seeking out and monitoring any trends that will improve or threaten overall business positioning and the products and services you offer.

#2 Assessing the Disruption: Opportunity or Threat?

Technology experiences more industry-wide and chain-reaction disruptions than any other field. Even if a new development occurs outside your direct field of involvement, you need someone to monitor whether it can still affect your organization directly or indirectly.

But, more importantly, you need to determine how it will affect you.

For example, the early-stage development of cloud capabilities could have easily become either an opportunity or threat for virtually every software developer and provider. Looking at the Cloud, the disruptive potential was clear from the onset.

The challenge with the Cloud was deciding whether to continue offering on-premise implementation (with the saturation of cloud technology as a looming threat) or begin pivoting services and products towards the software-as-a-service (SaaS) delivery model that’s become the default for many organizations today (leveraging cloud capabilities as an opportunity for expansion).

Crucially, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to navigating disruption, nor is the decision binary or static.

Looking at the progression of Microsoft Azure from its 2008 release and its straddling of both on-premise and cloud deployments demonstrates how to successfully pursue a hybrid approach—one that supports both early and late-stage adopters.

Your CTO should always be able to look at emerging technological evolutions and provide answers to existing questions, then project future complications as well.

#3 Pursuing Positive Disruption

Your CTO must also be able to pursue any opportunities resulting from an identified, disruptive trend—even those outside of the technology’s immediate sphere.

Imagine you operate a business that produces and sells running shoes. 

On the surface, you may not think there’s a whole lot of technology involved outside of manufacturing processes. However, many similar companies also provide smartphone apps to track workouts and fitness. By leveraging the technologies of mobile app development, GPS, monitoring devices, and more, these companies now provide a value-add service that substantially increases regular engagement with their customers and cultivates brand loyalty. Furthermore, in-app ads and personalized fitness coaching open new revenue streams.

But to implement such a strategy, someone within each organization must:

  • Come up with how to pursue the idea
  • Lead the conceptualization phase
  • Model the ideal users
  • Set project goals
  • Determine the team assigned to development and the best-suited method
  • Ensure testing phases are comprehensive
  • Oversee ongoing management

Seizing this opportunity relies on a person with an extensive understanding of both existing and developing technologies as well as broader consumer—or B2B—trends.

That’s the CTO.

#4 Collaborating With Engineering Teams and Across Your Organization

The CTO role’s emphasis on technology may imply purely technical involvement, but that’s far from reality.

A CTO is a leader. Aside from managing their own teams and associated human capital, they must also collaborate with other executives and those engaged in initiatives.

Underlying this collaboration, overarching business goals need to remain a priority.

Perhaps your CTO wants to develop software or functionality from scratch. However, your other executives, stakeholders, and IT experts have determined that the personnel bandwidth and resources required are too substantial. Maybe the timeline is simply too long to address customer needs.

Your CTO must be willing to collaborate and work with these roles to determine a path that makes the most sense for all business variables. They have to empathetically account for how their desired initiative will affect the entire organization’s operations—and when to compromise.

Compassion and Empathy for CTO Teams

Just as critical, a CTO’s empathetic collaboration must also extend to their teams regarding job fulfillment and career trajectory.

An essential aspect to any executive role is being able to nurture your team, deftly pushing your best performers into new professional challenges and opportunities where they can succeed with greater impacts while also helping those who may be struggling.

Top CTOs know how crucial it is to implement and leverage the right technology. They also know that many implementations are a byproduct of and maximized by properly setting up their teams with the right people and nurturing them.

#5 Championing Your Tech—Externally, As Well As Internally

From ideation phases, throughout project development, and well-beyond launch, your CTO also represents the externally facing persona that champions strategies and initiatives.

Who better to speak to interested markets and potential customers than the individual who has overseen efforts from start to finish?

With their technology and project-specific expertise, CTOs are the best-positioned to communicate strategic decisions, provide thought leadership, and demonstrate value behind new or enhanced services and products.

CTOs vs. Other C-Level Executives

The roles—and the number—of C-level executives have continually evolved as technology and information systems progressed from operationally beneficial to absolutely essential over the last few decades. There was a time when larger enterprises’ executives primarily consisted of:

  • Chief Executive Officer
  • Chief Operations Officer
  • Chief Financial Officer

The first technology dedicated executive commonly introduced to the C-suite was the Chief Information Officer (CIO). With the constant increase of technological complexities, however, a single leader proves insufficient.

As a result, new roles (the CTO and Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), to name a few) now oversee various aims and responsibilities related to technology endeavors. In a “pure” sense, these different roles’ definitions carry distinctions. Still, depending on your organization and its needs, your executive may double—or triple—dip regardless of their official title.

CIO vs. CTO 

Differentiating between the executive roles of CTOs and CIOs is often the most confusing distinction amongst the C-suite. This is common because one role may or may not report to the other depending on structures and operations. Significant hierarchy variations exist from organization to organization.

For a CTO—along with the CISO—reporting to the CIO tends to be more common, but the opposite can still happen.

The most rigorous definitions for each role will orient a CIO internally and the CTO externally. For example: 

  • A CIO will oversee major operational implementations and projects like cloud environment migrations and identity and access management (IAM)
  • A CTO will lead new software development initiatives that expand service or product capabilities

Among the various IT leaders you may rely on, the CTO job description includes the most external focus when it comes to their technological expertise. They’re the architects responsible for identifying new developments from around the world of technology and how they might help enhance your offered services or products.

Navigating the C-Suite Confusion

Part of the confusion that leads to asking, “What is a CTO?” is simply that the role differs in many organizations. 

The most traditional definition of a CTO is the one expanded upon above. However—depending on variables such as operations, delivered services or products, and business goals—a CTO may adopt some of the responsibilities traditionally associated with CIOs or CISOs (for instance, cybersecurity).

In these instances, some organizations may only fill the role of CTO.

Alternatively, they may outsource one or more of these roles, as needed.

Fractional CTOs: When & Why You Might Hire One

Many organizations may not currently rely on a CTO for their technological expertise but find themselves needing one. Various circumstances can suddenly drop this situation on your C-Suite, including:

  • New service or product initiatives that are only—or stuck—in the ideation and strategy phases
  • An existing CTO has departed or taken an extended leave of absence, and a temporary replacement is necessary to keep operations running smoothly
  • A coming disruption is expected to create a significant or uncertain impact
  • A startup finds itself in need of the role
  • An in-person CTO isn’t required, leaning on virtual or remote roles instead

Fractional CTOs (fCTOs or “virtual CTOs”) seamlessly step in and fulfill the role in these and all other circumstances via outsourcing with their expertise and capabilities. Ultimately, this results in lower expenses for your company and—often more importantly—less time commitment.

CTOs and Beyond—Emphasizing Empathetic Collaboration in Your Tech Department

CTOs are responsible for overseeing organizational challenges where decisions about assigning their team meet technology. The CTO role requires the knowledge and insight to manage both.

ScaleTech Consulting’s fractional CTO services provide technology leadership expertise emphasizing empathetic collaboration. Your business goals become ours.

As with our staffing and consulting, our fCTO will nail the strategy and technology plan first, then ensure the right people are placed in roles to succeed.

Reach out to get started.


Museum of Failure. LaserDisc. https://collection.museumoffailure.com/laserdisc/ 

ZDNet. What is a Chief Technology Officer? Everything you need to know about the CTO. https://www.zdnet.com/article/what-is-a-chief-technology-officer-everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-cto/