The CTO CIO Difference: An in-depth look

Andrew Weaver
April 19, 2022

Since launching CTO Academy, we’ve received the occasional enquiry from a CIO saying, “hey, what about us …. we want equal rights”or, words to that effect.

So we thought it a useful moment,  particularly as we have a growing number of CIO subscribers, to look into some of the differences between the CTO and CIO roles.

George Bernard Shaw is attributed as saying .. “the United States and the United Kingdom are two countries separated by a common language”.

Something similar could be said about the CTO and CIO, tech leadership roles separated by a common language.

But if you’re plotting a route towards a tech leadership role then what are the differences?

What are CTO vs. CIO responsibilities?

Who plays a more important role within a company? 

Both roles require technical, financial and organisational experience. They both require excellent communication skills but if the individual is more suited to strategy,team building and customer facing tasks then it´s likely to be the CTO role they want, if their focus is more internal towards infrastructure and compliance then it´s probably the CIO role.

But the significance and potentially the balance of power between these roles, often comes down to where the value drivers are in a company.  If product is your value then the CTO is likely to be more business critical whereas, if information is your value, one could argue it’s the CIO

Another helicopter way to look at the differences, is that the CIO cares about the bottom line, the CTO about the top line.  That the CIO is responsible for technologies that drive internal process and reduces cost, the CTO for technologies that drive external sales and product innovation.

In this article, we provide a rough guide to understanding the differences and definition of the two roles.

Key Features of the CTO (Chief Technology Officer) description

Technology Strategy / Vision

CTO responsibilities focus on the strategic direction of the company. They identify the role that specific technology will play in the future growth of the business.

The CTO role looks for contributions that technology can make to the competitive advantage of the company.

Team Management / Motivation

The CTO manages the team, dynamics, motivation and output.  He or she is normally the figurehead for the technology and the tech team.

Stakeholder Management / Product Development

There was a day when CTOs would rarely if ever have direct contact with the customer.  Today, it’s business critical that they know and understand the customer. Staying close to the customer via direct contact, customer support and sales & marketing, enables the high achieving CTO to understand intimately what the market wants from their product(s).

Aside from just establishing contact with the customer, the goal is to become business partners with them and make them feel and think that they are involved in the trajectory of the products development success.

What does a CIO (Chief Information Officer) do?

Information Technology Application

The CIO role focuses more on the application of information technology towards improving internal processes and services, reducing costs.

An effective CIO is equipped with knowledge about how to improve the efficiency of internal systems.

These can include payroll, accounting, human resources and wider benefits management.  

Reduce Internal Operating Costs

A key focus for the CIO is controlling and hopefully reducing costs, focusing on how technology can drive more efficient processes and outputs through automation.

Improve Services to Employees and Partners

There has been a transformation in recent years with the way companies attract and retain employees. The fight for talent means it’s often the perks how people are treated, that makes a big difference.

The CIO will motivate and manage the technology processes that help to create an efficient and enjoyable working environment.

Business Compliance

Another critical role of the CIO is to ensure that the IT infrastructure of the company is compliant with government standards. In countries like Canada, they have rules in terms of storing customer information. The CIO’s role is to ensure that downstream is compliant with all these requirements by conducting trainings and regular internal audits.

Meeting Requirements

The unique cornerstone of the CIO role has expertise in using technology for the advantage of the enterprise.

A decade ago, the CIO career path emerged as vision builders, tacticians, and deliverers.

Today, many requirements have been added. They are now mirroring the continuing transformation in both IT and the business at large. It currently comprises the strategist, architect, reformer, and alliance manager.

Also, it is expected that there will be a transformation of the CIO and CTO role in the next five years.

The scope of the CIO role is too broad for any one guide to cover definitively.

We focus on the most common and troublesome challenges. This includes keeping up with technology (and technologists) and communicating value.

There is some material toward the CIO and CTO responsibilities with a transformation role that may be new to the role or the company.

This article intends to help you establish a firm grounding.

What do market players say …

From Tibco COO, Matt Quinn …

“For me, I look at my CTO as my explorer,” he says. “He’s got his machete, and he’s going through the jungle, making paths that didn’t exist before, and he’s got a team of people that are really designed to do that.  Whereas the CIO is really responsible for making sure that the operational aspects of our business that are supported by IT are clean and efficient,”

from Dave Benton on

“the first question you might ask yourself is do I hire a CIO or CTO?

The decision can often be made by answering another question.

Is the product I sell software?

If the answer is…

No, then you probably need a CIO. Someone focused on internal technology, optimizing business processes and managing infrastructure + helpdesk.

Yes, then you probably need a CTO. Someone focused on creating your software product, development environment, and development team”

In the early stages of the start-up, when human resources are limited, the CTO often has to wear the hat of the CIO.

Since the start-up company needs tech infrastructure to build a software product, the CTO needs to procure a project management software to organise all the software development activities, accounting management software for payroll and taxation, also possibly recruitment platforms to hire some staff, and other possible products that will aid the start-up in releasing a product.

At times, if the CTO is too swamped in product development, some of the procurement tasks are done by the COO or Human Resources but with the CTO having the last say on the billing.

By the time the start-up grows as a result of the product’s high demand, the CTO will need to focus on product development, stakeholder management, and strategic planning and the CIO will then take over the internal tasks.

Different Focus

CTO for IT

  • Designing
  • Externally and Mission Focused
  • Future Business Needs
  • Manages Learning Process
  • Unknown Customers
  • Roadmaps
  • Long Term Planning
  • Focus on Unanticipated Successes
  • Emerging Technologies


  • Implementing and Operating
  • Internally and Customer Focused
  • Immediate Business Needs
  • Manages Execution Process
  • Known Customers
  • Documentation
  • Short Term Planning
  • Focus on Unanticipated Failures
  • Proven Technologies


Which path to take?

If you’re ambitious and want to head for a senior tech management role then, it’s likely to be as CTO or CIO.

Both roles require technical, financial and organisational experience.

More recently, both roles have become closely linked with the business side of a company.  Gone are the days when any tech leader in a company could ignore the business itself.

And they both require excellent communication skills – not always top of the list for techies.  If you have c-suite ambitions then step outside your comfort zone as soon as possible, when it comes to presenting and communicating.   

Finally but fundamentally, it’s a question of understanding which role is better suited to your skill set and ambition.

Do you thrive on leadership and team building?  Then head towards the CTO role.

Is process and compliance more to your liking?  Then go for CIO.

If unsure which direction to go and/or where your company needs to go, then we often recommend looking into finding a mentor who has been down a similar path and can help untangle any blockages.

More About CTO Academy

CTO Academy has been Ranked #2 Best CTO Course in the World. We provide online management skills training, mentoring and career development advice for tech leaders and managers around the world. Membership starts from just $49 per month, more details available here. “The skill set CTOs and IT Managers now require are a world away from what was needed in the past. I find the CTO Academy training modules to be highly valuable resources, providing broad-based business skills and awareness essential for success in the modern workplace.” – Eli Oshorov, Sydney

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