Without doubt, the CTO position in any company is one of the most important. While a love of all things technology is a given, as the most senior technological leader, it is also their responsibility to help craft the organisation’s technological vision, implement technology strategies, and ensure that the relevant technological resources are available, of the right quality and aligned with the company’s business needs and long-term objectives.
While a few CTOs have played the role of CEO (and it is becoming more common), many haven’t. Consequently, some may not be as business-minded as they may need to be. This can create difficulties in understanding and keeping on top of other non-technical parts of the company and also being able to translate and articulate the corporate vision to their team to ensure buy-in and delivery.
- Be pragmatic – Be able to constantly balance the need to refactor, improve the codebase/test coverage, etc. with the need to drive forward with new functionality.
- Possess a business-minded approach – A CTO needs to contribute to product development/business development through the invention of engineering/technical solutions to business problems. This includes contributing to the company’s competitive advantage, defensibility and USP by knowing which problems are hard and require innovative solutions and those that are simple and require straightforward ones.
Further, the CTO role has evolved exponentially over the last decade and as a true member of the executive team, a CTO also needs to continually evaluate, balance and address the (sometimes competing) needs and best interests of the business, staff and investors/key stakeholders.
- Communicate and feed back – It is imperative that a CTO is a confident and clear communicator—both with their team, the CEO, their peers and other departments across the business to ensure relevant information is shared regularly and appropriately.
- Be an agile leader – Possess the ability to maintain an agile development/technology team. The CEO wants to feel that the technology department stays responsive and communicative, no matter the challenge.
“To support the company and exec team a CTO needs a broad range of skills and concerns. For me, the move from CTO to CEO was a shift in emphasis towards commercial and strategic, rather than wholesale skills change.” – Jim Downing
- Think strategically – Ensure the product/service development process is fit for purpose and be aware of any technological limitations. On occasion, that may mean outsourcing and/or team building to make sure the development methodology is correct and effective or considering the role of new technologies and the skills required to implement them.
- Be data-focused – If there isn’t a separate data lead within the team, data and analytics for the business and the product/service will be needed. The ability to understand and communicate KPIs and metrics to fellow non-technical executives, and drive data-led outcomes, rests on a CTO’s shoulders.
- Take responsibility for stability and quality – The ultimate responsibility for the product or service and its architecture falls to a CTO. They therefore need to make sure that it is performant, secure, scalable, maintainable and extensible as and when required.
- Lead on legalities – With the speed at which technology changes, the law is often playing catch up, this can be a minefield when a CTO’s remit covers hardware, software and data, internal communications and external connectivity. Being responsible for things like data breaches, software licencing and anti-piracy, and IT contract disputes means any CTO needs to be abreast of technological legalities (possibly including disputes under intellectual property laws), GDPR, and any industry specific compliance.
- Understand the financials – The CTO also develops strategies to increase revenue and performs a cost-benefit analysis and return-on-investment analysis, so being able to manage a budget and forecast is crucial. Further, as the team scales, an understanding of the financials and costs of technology and the team, is absolutely vital.
Any CTO who is willing to hone these skills, is adaptable and strategic, will be an asset to their CEO and the wider C-suite team. They will also be instrumental in achieving successes for their product and development team(s) and the wider business, as the company becomes better placed to meet customer needs and demands, and increases its ability to outperform competitors and become market leaders.
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