Many developers aspire to be in a CTO-role someday, but what does it actually take to be a CTO? It of course depends on the size and stage of a company and other factors like how the technology team is structured. In this article we dive into some common characteristics of the role and hear directly from CTO’s about what their jobs consist of.
CTO Job Description
While it’s true that a Chief Technology Officer may have to wear many different hats in their time (particularly at a startup), the role does have an official definition with which we can work from
Academic Publishers Taylor and Francis define a Chief Technology Officer’s role as follows:
“An executive-level position in a company or other entity whose occupation is focused on scientific and technological issues within an organization.”
Now, while that’s a digestible definition, let’s delve deeper into the true job description of a CTO.
The ‘Chief’ Part
First things first, the title of ‘Chief’ holds great power — and you don’t need me to tell you that with great power, comes great responsibility.
Here’s what what a CTO needs to do to put the Chief in Chief Technology Officer.
- Managing Roadmaps, Tasks & Deadlines: The strategy and design that a CTO develops with his team often becomes little more than a huge to-do list. A good CTO will have the product and project management skills to attack that list.
- Getting Your Hands Dirty: A competent CTO rises to challenges and gets his or her hands dirty, proving that they can contribute as well as dish out orders. Speaking of which...
- Delegation: As mentioned in the previous point, a CTO should be working on the frontlines — however, it still holds true that the only way all of that listed work will get done is if the people beneath the CTO pull their weight. To make sure that happens, a CTO needs to know when to hand something off to a colleague.
On the topic of delegation in particular, we spoke to Convertful CTO Ruslan Sukhar, who gave us his insights:
“Delegation [is definitely part of the job], and it’s a personal challenge for me. For example, I can spend a whole weekend just making sure some specific UX is seamless, although that’s not the most valuable thing I could spend my time on.”
The ‘Technology’ Part
As you might have guessed, a CTO’s role revolves heavily around technology. Here’s how.
- Technology Strategy: Contemporary companies work in a digitally volatile space, and it’s the CTO’s job to ensure that the company has the best technology for the job(s) at hand. That includes recommending the right CMS to handle content distribution across existing and emerging channels.
- Business Strategy: A CTO needs to have a voice in the company strategy — especially since most (if not all) business strategies today rely heavily upon technology to exist, reach consumers and scale. More specifically, it’s upon the CTO to think up ways for his CEO and stakeholders to fulfil their goals. If they can do that well, the CTO ends up at the forefront of innovative projects.
- Evangelism: Finally, the CTO is also a public face of technology for the company. They need to tend to the internal wellbeing of the company’s tech and be the driving force behind the brand’s technical prowess and insight. The CTO needs to represent that prowess in public appearances, in front of the press, and at conferences.
Once again we spoke to Convertful’s CTO Ruslan Sukhar about this side of the story:
“I believe that CTO should be involved in business development in a technical way. It means CTO should always think not only about how to develop a certain product but also about how certain technologies can gain additional profits, and/or reduce costs.”
A Day in the Life of a CTO
To get better acquainted with the business life of a Chief Technology Officer, we have looked to the words of Eric Ries, the author of The Lean Startup and an ex-CTO of over four years:
“The CTO's primary job is to make sure the company's technology strategy serves its business strategy,” He said.
Reis went on to highlight that a good CTO should also give their company options when their business strategy demands it:
“A mark of a good CTO is that they never say "that's impossible" or "we'd never do that." Instead, they find options and can communicate them to everyone in the company. If the CEO wants to completely change the product in order to serve a new customer segment, you need someone in the room who can digest the needs of the new (proposed) business, and lay out the costs of each possible approach.”
Another CTO, Karl Schulmeisters of ClearRoadmap, also shone light on the many different hats a startup Chief Technology Officer has to wear:
“As a startup CTO I wore the following hats; Enterprise architect, SCRUM master, developer, lead quality assurer, social media manager, blogger, [and so forth].”
And Schulmeisters doesn’t seem to be alone in having to swap hats on a daily basis. John Petrone, CTO at LaunchPad Central, concurred:
“I'd say that a startup CTO needs to be something of a jack of all trades when it comes to technology issues. In the last week at my current early stage startup I've; phone screened and interviewed engineering candidates, researched a variety of technology directions, set up a new laptop for someone, checked some code, [and more].”
The Complex Role of a CTO
The role of a Chief Technology Officer is complex, and every CTO will have his or her own unique traits to bring to the table. But one thing is for sure, a CTO needs to have his or her finger on the technological pulse — always aware of new trends and the technologies behind them.
A great CTO should be ready to delegate, while also being comfortable enough to work on the frontline, coding alongside their fellow developers. Furthermore, they will be required to be even more flexible if they’re working in a startup.
If you’re still looking for more insights into the life of a Chief Technology Officer, check out our discussions with selected CTOs revolving around the topics of writing good code and managing deadlines at a CTO.
How would you describe yourself as a CTO? Are you a great architect, evangelist, interface designer, debugger, or a helpful Jack of all trades? Let us know in the comments section below!
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