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What Is A Chief Technology Officer? CTO Role Explained – Forbes

March 23, 2024

CTO, Chief Technology Officer.Concept with keywords, letters and icons. Colored flat vector … [+] illustration on white background.
A chief technology officer, or CTO, is the overall head of technology for an organization, overseeing the management of its IT and data, but also managing the development of products and services. The CTO will also be responsible for developing an overall tech strategy and for ensuring that this aligns with business goals. There’s also often a focus on improving the customer experience through technology. As technology has become more and more important for an organization’s functioning, the job has increased in seniority and importance. Here’s a look at what the position of CTO involves, and how to work your way up to the role.
The CTO is usually an organization’s most senior tech executive, reporting directly to the CEO and playing an important part in developing strategy, both in terms of internal processes and product development.
CTOs will generally work closely with the chief financial officer and chief operating officer, as well as any other senior tech staff. The role tends to have more importance in organizations that develop tech-based products and services, with many businesses simply having a chief information officer or other similar role instead, focused on the internal use of technology. The chief technology officer is often one of the first and most important roles in a tech-based start-up. CTOs are also sometimes known as chief technical officers.
The role of a CTO is a multi-faceted one, covering everything from the management of the organization’s hardware, software, data and networks to developing and overseeing technology for clients.
On a day-to-day basis, this means overseeing all tech staff, including handling recruitment and training and managing operations, while making sure all processes follow regulatory requirements. CTOs will also manage budgets and liaise with external partners. Over the longer term, a CTO will research and recommend new systems and technologies as required, as well as helping guide strategic business decisions and develop long-term strategies. They will work with other senior tech executives such as the chief information officer.
While a chief technology officer’s role includes developing technological solutions to meet customer needs, a chief information officer, or CIO, has a narrower focus, overseeing an organization’s internal IT operations.
This, too, often includes involvement in business strategy, for example by leveraging data to improve customer service or simplify the supply chain. However, the CIO is more focused on employees, as opposed to customers, engineers or developers. Where an organization has both a CTO and a CIO, the CTO is sometimes the more senior, although the two roles are often of equal seniority. The two work closely together in around half of organizations, according to an IBM survey — and when they do, there’s a positive effect on operating margin.
The job of chief technology officer requires a broad range of skills. A CTO will need good communications skills to deal with customers, employees and senior colleagues, along with leadership skills.
CTOs also need to be good at evaluating research and making decisions in order to help develop corporate strategy, along with problem-solving skills. In terms of education, CTOs will generally have a bachelor’s degree in computer science, information technology or a related field; many also have a master’s degree, perhaps in cyber security, data science or business management, often aquired while working their way up. CTOs often have an MBA, or technical certifications in areas such as IT or cybersecurity. Some academic institutions offer specific professional certifications for chief technology officers.
One of the biggest advantages in having a CTO is the creation of a single point of contact for all matters technological. But by integrating both internal and externally-facing functions, it’s also a very strategic role.
Many organizations have a CTO from the outset, often as a co-founder, helping to develop technology and engineering teams and strategies and getting products out the door. Others create the role as they expand and take on more technical staff, or when they realize that their company needs an overhaul of its technology or products. It’s possible, but not particularly common, to hire a chief technology officer as a consultant or on a part-time basis. Many organizations don’t have a CTO at all, instead employing a chief information officer (see above).
Pay levels for chief technology officers tend to be high, even for tech salaries, reflecting the many years of experience and the broad range of talents and knowledge required.
According to Glassdoor, the average salary for a chief technology officer in the U.S. is an impressive $328,646 per year, with an average $131,234 extra in bonuses. In the U.K., by contrast, the average salary of a CTO is just £68,000, according to Indeed, though there’s a very wide range. Google is currently the highest-payer in the U.S., offering an average of $709,000. Overall, the best-paid CTO jobs are to be found in San Diego, New York and Phoenix. A large majority of the highest-paying jobs are to be found in the tech industry, with defense organizations also major employers for the role.
Most CTOs have an extremely impressive academic background, with a bachelor’s degree in a computer science-related field, and many also holding a master’s in a subject such as cyber security, data science or business management.
It’s generally an extremely senior position, and most CTOs spend as long as eight to ten years working their way up to the role. Steps along the way might include initial positions as a software developer, technical engineer or information security officer, followed perhaps by roles as technical lead, project manager or a senior engineering role. Certifications in areas such as IT or cybersecurity can help, as can management qualifications. Working across different departments and roles can be a big advantage, given the wide range of expertise required.
The role of chief technology officer has evolved considerably over recent years, not least as the Covid pandemic triggered new challenges such as home working and remote meetings.
And it looks set to continue increasing in importance, as CTOs move away from simply holding the fort, and as strategic decision-making becomes a greater and greater part of the role. Meanwhile, the pace of innovation is increasing, making research into technologies such as AI and the internet of things an ever-greater central part of the job. Data, too, is becoming a vital resource, and cybersecurity increasingly mission-critical, while environmental and regulatory requirements are becoming more onerous. Finally, handling skills shortages is an increasingly pressing issue for many CTOs.
Bottom Line
The role of chief technology officer is, these days, one of the most strategic positions within an organization. As such, it takes years of experience to qualify, but is one of the best-paying roles in tech.


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