In a general sense, a chief technology officer is a technical leadership role involving many variables: business goals, corporate strategy, team management, technical vision, enterprise systems, and related tasks. But what is a CTO in a nutshell? What is the key responsibility?
Without a doubt, a primary responsibility is delivering a technical strategy that is aligned with wider business goals.
The effective CTO is in high demand as companies of all sizes have 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 tech leader on any typical day?
Maybe you’re aspiring to become a CTO but unsure about the realities of life at the top. Maybe you’re already there but want to dig deeper into the role.
Wherever you are, let us lead you through (almost) everything you wanted to know about being a CTO.
A chief technology officer could be described as the poster boy or girl for the technology side of a business.
Now, you may be wondering about that statement and where the CIO fits in.
The very simplistic definition of their respective roles is that the CIO tends to be internally facing and the CTO tends to be externally focused with executive responsibility for the technology, team, and product.
The CTO’s job is 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 involves a significant broadening of the skill set.
Coming out from behind the keyboard requires parking some of technical skills. Or, at the very 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 technologists who are experts at coding but may not always have a natural aptitude for the managerial.
Successful tech leaders are able to master a range of softer skills such as empathy (absolutely vital 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 ‘other people’s problems’ are no longer ‘other people’s problems’. If the people are your team, their problems are now your problems too — and you need to manage them.
Communication is crucial and a failure to communicate effectively is often cited as the reason why some tech leaders 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.
As we said, CTOs have to master an array of softer skills that will enable them to bridge the gap between the technical and the non-technical, between the tech team and the market.
Chief technology officers and the tech team are increasingly expected (and if they’re a half-decent team, they should be demanding) to speak directly to the customer and to liaise with the customer’s own technical team.
They have to be open-minded or, in other words, willing to learn about and try new ideas and certainly not be fixed on one particular technology. A good tech leader, therefore, must create space to learn and predict market developments and absorb input from team members.
The CTO needs to mould the team into a customer-centric operation, prioritising what the market wants ahead of what they think is cool and fun to build. Ultimately, the customer remains the most important stakeholder. Product development should be driven by a validated, lean, start-up learning process and not by the tech leader or what the star performers want to create.
We get that Steve Jobs could build without validation, but, hey, that’s not the norm because, as a leader, you must be focused on customer-driven product development.
Of the many skills Jobs mastered, one of the most notable was communication — at least his external comms were pretty effective. Alas, many CTOs struggle to master or even recognize the importance of clear communication.
The ability to delegate is essential to help the team grow and learn. But it’s critical for the leader to create sufficient free time to read, understand and focus. We are talking about focusing 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 the tech leader might instinctively be more comfortable with.
Delegation is one of the core leadership skills, required to:
Sign up for our CTO Academy Newsletter and become a better leader daily.
The obvious answer here… ‘there’s no average day’, particularly when working within a fast-moving environment.
There is also a vast difference between the CTO role in a start-up vs a large organisation. The former is often bogged down with fire-fighting while the latter has to deal with stakeholders and corporate politics.
So we asked CTO Academy Co-Founder Jason Noble to give us some insight into what an average day might look like from his recent experience leading fast-growing start-ups.
1. Hop on the train into central London and alongside my fellow start-up techies, open up the latest copy of ‘Wired’. OK, to be honest, 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 the day generally starts with catching up with the operations team, checking up with systems, and making sure everything is ticking over OK.
Next up, find out if any releases are due today and if there are any problems which need the input of the chief technology officer.
3. Liaise with customer services. This is a really important element of the modern CTO schedule. Customers are the number one priority — even for the tech team — so it’s important for the chief technology officer to keep an ear to the ground for market feedback.
4. Meet with the CEO. You want a close relationship with the boss — 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 in early-stage companies.
The CEO is often as much of a challenge as the customer. Changes in specification, strategy and timeline are also regular spanners that can impact that nice tidy schedule you started the day with.
5. At some point in each day I try to create some space for thinking time. The CTO role involves decision-making and strategy, both of which need detailed consideration, research and argument. Good time management is, therefore, critical for any successful CTO and carving out some me-time is vital.
Bags of other stuff emerge, but these have been the key elements in my recent CTO roles.
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 characters and have followed very different career paths.
Of course, it’s not entirely right 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. They are also quite 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. In other words, you need to comprehend the character to decipher the message. For instance, if last-minute curveballs are thrown at you, then it’s important to establish a turnaround compromise.
Always build in elasticity so you can take on eleventh-hour issues and absorb the CEO’s idiosyncratic tendencies!
Ten years ago cyber security was some way down the list of CTO priorities, but increasingly, today it’s amongst the most prominent. Security breaches, whether internal or external, are a constant threat. As a CTO, you must make sure you have processes in place to deal with them.
That said, it’s virtually impossible to stop a breach because of the movement of technology. What makes it even harder is that a lot of breaches are made through social engineering.
Your priority should be to educate your staff and your users on how to best protect themselves, using the relevant processes you have put in place.
A recent case I personally experienced was where a developer accidentally leaked an API key that gave users unauthorized access to systems. The security measures we had installed immediately picked up the problem and shut it down.
All the API keys were changed and we quickly confirmed that nobody had used that particular 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. This can be malicious, with somebody hacking in a security breach. Or it could be something as innocent as a user with an API key that knows how to breach the limitation and get more information. Having tracking mechanisms and automatic stops in place will prevent that.
Data loss is another important issue so do ask yourself occasionally:
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 a CTO (maybe because I have a few years under my belt) I always want to be up to date on tech, both generally and within my immediate area of expertise. I need to understand what’s going on.
I also need to understand:
This leads me to consider on a regular basis whether I’m using the right tech. In other words, am I building a system on the correct frameworks and languages to meet the requirements of the customer? Quite often I come across projects where they’ve built a generic web system, let’s say in PHP, that falls short of what the user needs.
One of the reasons you need to delegate is to create a sufficient amount of time for you to understand longer-term strategies and technological innovation.
If you’re behind the laptop and micromanaging your team, you will struggle to create the headspace to gain insights into technology around the corner and how it may impact your company and sector. You must be up to date with the latest technology and avoid being too internal. That’s for the CIO when your company gets big enough to have both positions!
The CTO has to constantly ask, is there a technology out there that could make my systems deliver faster, or make things easier for our developers, our customers or our business? If so, how quickly can I integrate it into the business?
You need to set aside some time to identify the latest trends in technology and differentiate between hype and reality. This enables you to make an educated decision on whether to incorporate new technologies, rather than jumping on a headline or bandwagon.
Are you using the right technology?
The CTO must ensure that the company is using the right frameworks and back-end servers to support it.
There are always too many options and countless choices. You may not be an expert in a particular piece of tech, but you need the space to understand what benefits it could provide.
In addition, maintain your professional development in terms of your leadership and management skills. Here at CTO Academy, we recommend carving out time for short online courses and 1:1 coaching… well, we would say that wouldn’t we!
Another common issue is missing deadlines, even though they can happen for a myriad of other reasons.
The causes for delays can be:
You must communicate — very clearly — the deadlines that you believe you can achieve. This should provide the basis for the decisions made by the rest of the business. It will also ensure that the sales and marketing team aren’t over-promising on specifications and timelines.
It’s especially the case if you use third-party suppliers. They may be suppliers who are reliant on your software or who give you software. For those suppliers that provide you with software, you need to understand their development processes and their reliability.
I’ve had dealings with suppliers where the quality of their data was subjective at best. And, which is far worse, their delivery was intermittent.
Another area that causes significant conflict is sales team deadlines.
These are often driven by challenging targets and attached bonuses. It’s not uncommon for salespeople to make promises to clients that are unattainable or put a significant strain on the technology team.
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. That’s why you, as a chief technology officer, must have regular conversations with the sales team. You want to ensure they’re not over-committing your team and, thus, prevent disappointing the customer.
But you also don’t want to be the person who always says, ‘No, it can’t be done’. So, stay flexible and try to accommodate the needs of the salespeople. Because it’s them who help bring in the customers the business needs.
A very common problem for CTOs in businesses large and small is a reliance on one or two individuals who dominate stand-ups and retain critical elements of knowledge about the software.
Because of this imbalance of power, those individuals might also become difficult and disruptive. However, you can’t just get rid of them because they have the knowledge you depend on.
This is one of the trickier management tasks you can face, so you need to employ the right preventative strategy.
The best plan is to double up. In other words, ensure:
a) knowledge sharing, and
b) 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.
A recent report by Reed provides insight into the expected earnings for London-based tech leaders in 2023.
According to the report, those working in companies with fewer than 1,000 employees should earn £96,080 per annum plus a 12% bonus in the private sector. In the public sector, on the other hand,we are talking about £75,950 with a 27.90% pension addition.
However, in the United States, the figures are somewhat different. For instance, heads of tech roles in US-based companies of a similar size are likely to earn an average salary of $170,000 in 2023 or $74.00 per hour.
For more detailed information, use our salary calculator to see the averages across major world cities.
Trends and estimates are showing clear increase in demand for all types of contracts (eg fractional CTO jobs, full- and part-time, interim). Don’t forget that there are still a relatively large number of organizations that are undergoing digital transformation. Additionally, new tech start-ups are emerging on daily basis.
They are all, eventually, looking for CTOs —the role that is quickly becoming crucial to success.
Becoming an effective chief technology officer is probably the number one target for most CTO Academy members. And it doesn’t matter if you’re 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 that you understand the leadership skills needed to be effective, work towards improving those skills and discard or outsource the rest.
90 Things You Need To Know To Become an Effective CTO