What is a Chief Technology Officer?

Andrew Weaver
May 5, 2022

A Chief Technology Officer is a technical leadership role with many variables, business goals, corporate strategy, team members, technical vision, enterprise systems, and related tasks. 

Without a doubt, a primary responsibility is delivering a technical strategy that is aligned to wider business goals. 

The effective CTO is in high demand as companies of all sizes have tech major tech functions and are becoming increasingly digitalized.  

So what it’s really like up there at the CTO summit?

What fundamental changes occur when you move from the technical to the managerial?

What issues cross the desk of a chief technology officer on any typical day?

Maybe you’re ambitious for a CTO role but unsure about the realities of life at the top.

Maybe you’re already there but continue to be curious.

Wherever you are, let us lead you through (almost) everything you wanted to know about being a CTO.

A Chief Technology Officer (CTO) roles and responsibilities

  • Technical Strategy and Strategic thinking
  • Advising on technology trends
  • Building and managing development teams
  • Providing technical leadership
  • Operational management
  • Customer relations, often acting as a middleman while delivering technical services to the target market
  • Representing the tech team in the C-suite
  • Working closely with the marketing and sales teams while being in direct communication with the CEO
  • Understanding the technological needs to drive company growth
  • Technology management

What is a Chief Technology Officer?

A Chief Technology Officer could be described as the poster boy or girl for the technology side of a business. 

If wondering about that statement and where the CIO fits in, well the very simplistic definition of their respective roles is that the CIO tends to be internal facing, the CTO tends to be externally focused with executive responsibility for the technology, team, and product. 

They’re also expected to be the in-house futurologist with an understanding of technology trends and how they might impact the wider business strategy.

A deep understanding of tech is a given for any CTO but traditionally that might have been the only expectation, yet in recent times the role has become much more customer-focused and required a significant broadening of the skill set. 

Coming out from behind the keyboard requires parking some of the technical skills, or at least placing them on an equal footing with the leadership and management skills you will need to become an effective tech leader. 

And that’s not always an easy move for most technologists, who have grown up with and become expert at the technical, whilst not always having a natural aptitude for the managerial.

Key new skills?

Successful tech leaders are able to master a range of softer skills such as empathy (absolutely key according to the tech leaders we interview), emotional intelligence, continuous reasoning, and a coaching mindset.

You also need to become an influential people manager and understand that people’s problems are no longer ‘other people’s problems because if they’re your team you need to manage them.

Communication is absolutely crucial and a failure to communicate effectively is often stated as a significant blocker for some tech leaders and why they fail to achieve the impact they want. 

In particular, the ability to communicate with clarity and precision to non-technologist stakeholders, be they colleagues, investors, customers, or even the CEO, has become key to success.

What are the common traits of a successful Chief Technology Officer?

As mentioned, they have to master a range of softer skills that is often primarily focused with around bridging the gap between technical and the non-technical, between the tech team and the market. 

Chief Technology Officers and the technology team are increasingly expected (and if they’re a half-decent team then they should be demanding) to speak directly with customers and liaising with their own technical teams.

They have to be open-minded and willing to learn about and try new ideas. They certainly shouldn’t be fixed to one particular technology. They have to create space to learn and predict market developments and absorb input from team members.

The Chief Technology Officer needs to mold them into a customer-centric operation, focused on what the market wants ahead of what they think is cool and fun to build. Ultimately, the customer remains the most important stakeholder and product development should be driven by a validated, lean start-up learning process, not by the CTO or what the star performers want to build.

We get that Steve Jobs could build without validation, but hey that’s not the norm and any tech leader must be focused on customer-driven product development.

And another skill that Jobs mastered was communication, at least his external comms were pretty effective. Alas, many CTOs struggle to master or even recognize the importance of clear communication and another familiar tripwire is delegation.

Delegation is essential to help the team grow and learn, but it’s critical for the CTO to create sufficient free time to read, understand and focus on the high-value areas of the business that have an impact and make a difference. Strategy, team building, and tech planning become the priority, away from the weeds that they might instinctively enjoy and be more comfortable with. 

The ability to delegate is indeed one of the core leadership skills, required to create sufficient headspace and avoid that sinking feeling of trying to cope with too much, too often.

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An average day in the life of a Chief Technology Officer

The obvious answer here … ‘there’s no average day’ particularly when working within a fast-moving environment.

There is also a vast difference when operating as CTO in a start-up vs. CTO in a large organization – the former is often bogged down with fire fighting, the latter with managing stakeholders and corporate politics.

So we asked CTO Academy Co-Founder Jason Noble to give us some insight about his experiences of what an average day might look like … at least from his recent experience leading fast-growing startups;

[NB: When we first wrote this article, we were living a normal, pre-COVID life referencing a commute to work  …. how life has changed the average routine]

1. Hop on the train into Central London and alongside my fellow start-up techies, open up the latest copy of ‘Wired’ – OK, I’m not that hip and don’t view that as a priority, usually, I’m catching up on relevant tech articles I’ve forwarded to the kindle! 

2.  Once in the office I generally start my day by catching up with the operations team, check-up with systems, and making sure everything ticking over OK.

Find out if any releases are due today and any problems which need the input of the chief technology officer.

3. Really important element of the modern CTO schedule is liaising with customer services. Customers are the no.1 priority – even for the tech team – so it’s important for the Chief technology officer to keep an ear to the ground with market feedback.

4. You want a close relationship with the CEO, it will make your life a lot easier.  Most days will feature some contact with the CEO and being pulled into occasional meetings where your technology insight is needed.

With more complicated technologies and/or high-value sales, there could be close liaison with the sales team and you might even be brought into the sales process itself.

An average day for the CTO can involve interactions with many of the other departments and executives. Alongside this, you need to create sufficient slack to deal with the curve balls that often emerge, particularly with early-stage companies.

Indeed, the CEO is often as much of a challenge as the customer, changes of specification, strategy, timeline being regular spanners that can impact that nice tidy schedule you started the day with.

5.  You also need to create and stick to some space for yourself and for thinking time. You will have moved up the next level of decision making and strategy, most of which needs detailed consideration, research and argument.

Good time management is critical for any successful CTO and carving out some me-time is critical.

Bags of other stuff emerges but these have been the key elements in my recent CTO roles.

A CTOs relationship with the CEO

We’ve already alluded to the fact that your most important relationship as CTO will often be with your CEO. It can also be the most fraught as CEOs and CTOs are typically very different types of character and followed very different career paths.

It’s wrong to categorize any CEO as typical because they are by their nature supremely individual, but you’ll often find that they are very creative, and visionary but often unrealistic. We’re not talking Steve Jobs here but most CEOs will want things done yesterday and will probably not have a strong technology background.

It’s therefore an essential relationship for the Chief Technology Officer to understand and manage. You need to understand the character to decipher the messaging.

If last-minute curveballs are delivered then it’s important to establish a turnaround compromise.

Always build in elasticity so you can take on last-minute issues and absorb some of the CEO’s idiosyncratic tendencies!

The key issues that cross a Chief Technology Officer’s radar

Ten years ago, cyber security was some way down the list of CTO priorities, but increasingly today it’s amongst the most prominent.  Security and particularly a breach, whether internal or external, is a constant source of potential disruption and worse so as CTO you need to make sure you have processes in place to be able to deal with any such breach.

That said, it’s virtually impossible to stop a breach because of the movement of technology, and also that a lot of breaches are done through social engineering.

Therefore a priority for you is to educate your staff and your users on how to best protect themselves and if something does come up, to ensure you/they have the processes in place to be able to deal with it quickly?

A recent case I personally experienced was where the process helped immediately shut down a problem, which happened when a developer accidentally leaked an API key that gave extra access to systems that users shouldn’t have been able to.

It was picked up very quickly and everything was shut down, all the API keys were changed and it was confirmed that nobody had actually used that API key whilst it was in the wild for a few minutes. There was no panic because processes were in place.

Another issue that might cross your radar is data theft.

Data theft can be malicious with somebody hacking in a security breach, but it could be something as innocent as an API that you’ve provided to users where somebody has worked out how to get more information than they should do. Having the tracking mechanisms and automatic stops in place will prevent that.

And data loss is another important issue.

Are you regularly backing up your systems?

Are you checking that the backups are there?

It’s something that very few people actually do, though they often say they do.

Even though I’ve got a few years under my belt as CTO (maybe because I have a few years under my belt) I always want to be up to date on tech, both generically and within my immediate area of expertise. I need to understand what’s going on.

I also need to understand the latest techniques, the best frameworks, what’s happening in the cloud, what’s happening for infrastructure, the arrival of no-code solutions, and all the services that we can take advantage of to make our product faster, smoother and better for customers.

Which lead me to consider on a regular basis whether I’m using the right tech.

Am I building a system that is built on the correct frameworks and languages for the type of customers it is correct?

Quite often I come across projects whereby they’ve built a generic web system, let’s say in PHP, but the performance and the need of the users is significantly greater.

Staying up to date with technology trends

One of the reasons you need to delegate is to create a sufficient amount of time for you to understand longer terms strategies and technological innovation.

If you’re stuck behind the laptop and micromanaging your team, you will struggle to get the headspace and insight about what technology is around the corner and how it might impact your company and sector. You need to be up to date with the latest technology and avoid being too internal. That’s for the CIO when you get big enough for both of you!

The chief technology officer has to think: Is there a technology out there that could make my systems faster to deliver, or make things easier for my developers, our customers, or our business? If so, how quickly can I integrate it into my business?

You need to set aside some time to understand the latest trends in technology and be able to drill down and see the wood for the trees. What is hype, and what is the likely?  This enables you to make an educated selection and decision on whether to incorporate new technologies, rather than jumping on a headline or bandwagon.

Are you using the right technology? The chief technology officer needs to make sure that whatever is required for the business, you’re using the right frameworks and back-end servers to support that.

So as a database grows you may find that relational databases aren’t the right architecture to use. And you may want to move up from that to a data warehouse, or maybe an OLAP cube, to Elastic search.

There are always too many options, increasing choices. You may not be an expert in it, but you need the space to understand what benefits they can provide.

In addition, keep focused on your own professional development in terms of your leadership and management skills. Here at CTO Academy, we recommend carving out time for short online coaches and 1:1 coaching … well, we would say that, wouldn’t we!

Missing Deadlines

Another common area that gets blamed on the technology team and the CTO is missed deadlines, even though they happen for a myriad of other reasons.

Missed deadlines can be because the specifications were incomplete and you started a build before you really understood as a business what it is that you wanted to build.

It also may be down to the fact that you need other people to be part of the development process. And their availability isn’t relatively as easy as it is for your own team.

But, you need to communicate very clearly the deadlines that you believe you can achieve. So that the rest of the business can make decisions on that and, in particular, that the sales and marketing team aren’t over-promising on specification and timeline.

It’s especially the case if you use third-party suppliers. That may be suppliers who are reliant on your software, or who give you software. For those suppliers that provide you with software or software that you use you need to understand their road map and their development processes and their reliability. 

I’ve had dealings with data suppliers where the quality of the data was subjective at best but what was far worse was their delivery was intermittent. Made it very difficult for us as a business to build and grow with it.

Being Flexible

An area that I’ve known to cause significant conflict is when dealing with sales team deadlines, often driven by challenging targets and attached bonuses. It’s not uncommon that they make promises to clients that are unattainable or put a significant strain on the technology team and other tasks.

The sales team wants to close the deal so they might say that certain functionality is going to be available immediately or ahead of what is realistic. You, as a chief technology officer, need to have regular conversations with the sales team to make sure they’re not over-committing your team and the customer isn’t going to be disappointed.

You don’t want to be the naysayer and the person who always says, No, it can’t be done. You need to be flexible and build that in because, ultimately, the business needs customers; it needs to bring them on board.

Over-Reliance On Individuals

A very common problem in businesses large and small (and chief technology officers) is a reliance on one or two individuals who dominate stand-ups and retain critical elements of knowledge about the software being built.

Because of this imbalance of power, those individuals might also become difficult and disruptive but, you can’t get rid of them because they have the knowledge and we have the dependency.

This is one of the trickier management tasks you can face so you need to employ a strategy that counters this risk and the best way to do that is double up. Try to make sure that knowledge is shared and that nobody becomes too important and has too much power or influence.

The way you manage disruptive team members will define your success as CTO.

Conclusion

Becoming an effective Chief Technology Officer is probably the number one target for most CTO Academy members – whether en route to the top or already there.

We’ve created a slightly light-hearted look at CTO life but tried to focus on the key changes that take place when arriving in a senior role and what should and shouldn’t be part of your workload.

It’s often a high-pressure role and the technology almost always stops with the CTO, a level of responsibility that some thrive on while others prefer to keep a lower profile.

What is crucial is you understand the leadership skills needed to be effective, work towards improving those, and discard or outsource the rest.

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