The Chief Technology Officer’s role starts from the love of technologies and should sound like Chief Technology Lover. Indeed, the true love of technology is where most of the successful CTOs take place. They hack systems because of curiosity, read books because of the need for knowledge, trying new tools, programming languages, and environments. A CTO must also possess the ability to think effectively in conceptual terms, bring clarity, and strong leadership. A CTO must have team-building skills since long-term goals require accomplishing far more than one person can do.
No need to be an expert to know that the CTO is frequently not the only technical role in the company. Therefore, this essay is relevant to other roles like Director or VP of Engineering or Head of Engineering. Eventually, the CIOs are also in the same boat, and responsibilities are aligned but just at different levels.
A successful enterprise is a mirror of the successful CTO that supports and enables the company’s business. A CTO that supports and enables the business, understands how the technology will impact the company development using the well-known metrics called ROI or return on investment. This may sometimes be not obvious, but the first thing the CTO should care about is not technology. The only thing you can be sure of is that a Chief Technology Officer’s main duty is to enable a company to reach its financial and marketing goals using an innovative approach and technology.
Unlike the CTO, the VP of Software Engineering responsible for achieving program management and engineering execution goals; however, the meaning is the same. Unless one can directly understand how technology decisions impact the business, there is no way to know that those decisions are the right ones.
Unlike the business roles, the CTO utilized technical tools, technical expertise, technology leadership, and information technology for strategic results. As mentioned in the article Five Things Your Startup CTO Should Do, the CTO should be credible in the other corporate leaders, employees, and customers’ eyes.
A CTO should ensure the company’s technical vision in the eyes of the customers is implemented at all levels of the engineering organization. So that the engineering team, managers, directors, and VPs understand and acknowledge a single strategy and priorities of the software product development.
The profession of the CTO originates from the post-WWII time. At that time, so to say — directors of the after-war laboratories were corporate vice presidents who did not participate in the company’s corporate decisions. They were responsible for attracting new scientists to do research and develop products.
In the 1980s, the role of these research directors changed substantially. Since technology and software were becoming a fundamental part of the development for most products and services, companies needed an operational executive who could understand the product’s technical side and advise on improving and developing. This led to the creation of the position of Chief Technology Officer by large companies in the late 1980s with the growth of the information technology industry, software, and SaaS companies.
These days, IT is used to gain strategic advantage for the company, and the line between internal and external technology continues to blur. There is a lot of overlap between what companies do for their customers and the organization itself. The CTO cannot directly be involved in every project. Instead, they should help identify the strategic value of technology. A particular technology should help an enterprise make money and give an unfair advantage in the market to be able to get on the table of the executive team.
The CTO’s responsibilities are also always considered as a chief innovation officer as one has to champion innovative ideas and ensure the team is set to be innovative.
The CTOs face challenges on an almost daily basis, aren’t they? We live in an ever-evolving environment accelerating the technology change, and it requires focus to keep up with it. One has to understand the business and its needs in order to be able to communicate better solutions to both the IT team and the business leaders. In this way, business management becomes important. The people a CTO works with have to value judgment and leadership, thus credibility is a critical component of successful relationships. Honesty and integrity help to build a good level of credibility.
The balance between breadth and depth poses a challenge for CTOs as well. A single person cannot understand and be familiar with the full range of technologies. Some cases as mathematical principles involved in network queuing or data compression require more depth. Whereas understanding the range of issues involved in creating the proper enterprise architecture requires more of a breadth. As the company matures, the technical leadership expands to new roles as directors, VPs, and such. While one leader focuses on software and security, the other may be leading IT and hardware.
The CTOs should never forget about the importance of intellectual property, which most of the time is dotted with land mines. In creating technology, a CTO should watch their steps to create an IP that is directly valuable to the company and defends it.
Growth is the biggest challenge most CTOs face. The company created by three people with a vision to build a $10 million company, turned into a 1500 employee company and $500 million in sales requires tremendous effort. The only way to make that is to develop internal leadership. The executive team has to create a team of business and functional leaders who have the capability to carry forward the strong culture of growth, technology leadership, and personal integrity.
The acquisitions are a big chunk of the growth, and the main challenge is gaining strategic advantage through integration. The difficulty lies in the balance of letting the acquired company retain what made it special in the first place while bringing the common business and cultural advantages of being a part of a company.
To become a leader, one has to surround themselves with smart people and work with them. Show interest in people and their needs and make friends in return. As a result, a CTO (or any leader) is able to gather a group of people who are willing to listen to one’s ideas and take direction. Empathy and likability can be an unfair advantage in this field.
A good leadership approach would use influence with a team of people to achieve the desired goals. But the leadership requires creating a vision and clear goals and being a good coach to help the team succeed. It’s important to delegate the end goals and do not micromanage. Some leaders don’t micromanage, but they don’t manage at all. Find out the good balance of controlling but giving the right amount of freedom: let the smart people figure out how to do it themselves. The CTO should also work outside to ensure the obstacles are limited or removed.
When the business grows, a company needs to develop stronger sets of business leaders. The CTO is almost always in charge of working on the key operational units and cooperating with functional VPs of engineering, IT, finance, operations, and HR.
If the company has a complex product or a set of products that combines hardware and software, the engineering will encompass product development and IT — internal projects and support. In this case, it’s better to get someone like the VP of Engineering, and VP of IT that oversee the IT function, if the CTO focuses on product development. The engineering side provides a centralized source for standards, support functions, technology initiatives, and engineering career development.
Every CTO is good at managing engineering teams, maybe less in the latter stages but during the company’s early days. Teams are formed on a project basis. Each project can have a completely different structure, but all must follow standard processes, including progress tracking and peer reviews. Project structure can lead to the nature of the work and team assembly. Since teams are temporary, people have moved around as part of the dynamic environment and career development.
The working style recognizes the pure matrix and pure line organizations, but both can cause problems. In a matrix structure, individuals work across teams and projects and within their department or function. For example, a project or task team established to develop a new product might include engineers and design specialists and those with marketing, financial, personnel, and production skills. On the other hand, in the pure line organization, the activities (at any level of management) are the same, with each employee performing the same type of work, and the divisions primarily exist for control and direction. In practice, such a type of organization rarely exists.
This is not particularly the CTO’s task to design organizations’ working styles, but one can take an important role in establishing the balance. The hybrid of those two working styles is something that worth considering. There could be a central organization that supports collaboration, shared knowledge across the business functions, and process improvements. The actual project functions are still distributed to ensure they address each business unit’s immediate business goals.
As mentioned above, the CTO is the role that’s responsible for managing budgets and investing in technology. The business units are responsible for securing budgets for engineering projects and product development through customer-funded activities and internal R&D funds. The internal projects may have standard budgets, but the executive team should thoroughly review ROI analysis for any major project.
As for any business, things are done because someone needs them and can demonstrate the business value. A growing profitable company selects and funds the projects that are of greatest value to the corporation. For example, time to market could be a key driver for profitability, and a project that improves time to market may provide much more value than one that improves the efficiency of a functional team.
The goals are set formally at the top of each division. The unit then establishes details and specific projects. The CTO’s role in establishing the goals is to ensure that goals are consistent with the corporate and business goals. The projects must never be implemented for the unit gain only but the organization.
The goals are set to ensure the target is reached when the time comes. A truly great CTO measures success, but before that, every project should have the success criteria defined. The criteria are adapted as necessary during the project and assessed on a project-by-project basis.
Unfortunately, neither technology, neither teams nor business grows by themselves. The engineering team will not achieve its goals if the team is missing key means. The CTO has to ensure that the team can accomplish the project and each individual can succeed in achieving both the company and their personal career goals. If issues arise where people’s career goals are not consistent with their capabilities, the CTO (along with the executive team) has to identify those problems and deal with them.
Every CTO starts their career as a software engineer, and they should keep in mind that the best environment for the team is the one they would like when early in their career. Creating a productive environment is the CTO’s responsibility. One should recognize talents and quality people, help them succeed, and be the best version of themselves. A CTO values integrity and provides the tools necessary to get the job done. It is much easier to ensure the company’s vision in a healthy environment and that the company’s mission is achievable. In fact, it is easy to motivate people to do their best if CTO provides a good work environment in the form of both people and the facilities.
These are only a few thoughts of the CTO’s success. However, a total still requires a combination of luck, adaptability to changing conditions, and willingness to commit to the fact that even the best CTOs let people do things better than one could do themself. The CTO is not an easy role but the actually rewarding one.
Best of luck.
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