The Different CTO Roles

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I was putting together a short panel presentation on the role of a Chief Technology Officer in corporate innovation and I once again realized that there is quite a bit of confusion around the role of the CTO. The first thing that always comes up when you want to discuss the role of a CTO is that there is no well established definition of what a CTO actually does. The role is very different depending on the type of company and the role technology plays in the company.

Some time ago I did some digging into the history of the CTO roles and how to best classify them. I am posting it here as it might be of general interest. Some of the sources I used are at the end of this note.

When John Brockman, founder of Edge, interviewed Nathan Myhrvold his first question was “What’s a CTO”, to which Nathan replied:  

“Hell if I know. You know, when Bill and I were discussing my taking this job, at one point he said, Okay, what are the great examples of successful CTO's. After about five minutes we decided that, well, there must be some, but we didn't have on the tip of our tongues exactly who was a great CTO, because many of the people who actually were great CTO's didn't have that title, and at least some of the people who have that title arguably aren't great at it.

My job at Microsoft is to worry about technology in the future. If you want to have a great future you have to start thinking about it in the present, because when the future's here you won't have the time. “

The first CTOs came onto the scene during the late eighties. A number of companies started to capitalize on the results their R&D laboratories were delivering and the directors of these labs were moved into positions where they could use technologies to provide the company with strategic advantages. The role developed into very different positions and there are several ways how to categorize them. There are good reasons for following any of the categorization models, but I believe Tom Berray’s quadrant gives the best framework for reasoning about what makes CTOs successful:

Infrastructure Manager – In companies where the role of the CIO becomes too complex, the CTO takes on the responsibilities for infrastructure and IT operations: data center operations, network operations, application development and maintenance, security, and other line functions. The CIO retains the responsibility for how technology is actually used within the organization. This is mainly a model used in traditional businesses where IT is in a pure support role.

Technology Visionary and Operations Manager – This pattern is usually found in and other technology-oriented companies where information technology is key ingredient in implementing business strategy. The CTO is responsible for determining how technology can be used to implement the business strategy.  This is the ‘technology visionary’ aspect of the role.  But then subsequently, the CTO is responsible for actually integrating and running the technology, i.e. the role of the ‘operations manager.’ In this pattern the CTO is often a co-founder of the business, or one of the first hires.

External Facing Technologist – We see this model often in companies where technology is used to provide products and services to customers and partners; the CTO is the intermediary between clients and internal development and the main influencer in the development of the product portfolio. The CTO is in constant contact with key customers and is prominently involved in market research. Some of the larger software companies have successfully used this model with multiple CTOs who are seasoned technology experts and whose main task it is to be the bridge to customers. A number of CTOs of software companies in the middleware space have also described the customer contact as their main activity.

Big Thinker – The CTOs in this model mainly spend their time evaluating how technology can be used internally to develop new business models and business lines, and how to preempt competitor’s attempts to use technology to disrupt the markets. This CTO’s responsibilities often include advanced technology, competitive analysis, technology assessment, prototyping lab, partnering, planning, and architecture standards.

In the first two models the CTO directly manages an engineering division and much of his/her influence in the organization is exerted through technology development in their own organization. I have met CTOs who manage divisions that had 500 - 1000 engineers or more.

In the last two models the CTO has a role in which he/she needs to influence other divisions to execute on new directions. To guarantee this level of influence the CTO is often part of or close to the executive team, often reporting to the CEO. The CTO does supervise a small team (typically 10-50 engineers, depending on the size of the company) that functions as an incubator for high risk technology directions.

Below are some sources. Not all are good, but together they paint a reasonable picture and give you a good starting point for further research.