Why more CTOs need to step out of their sandboxes

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One of the many things I love about the beach in the summer is letting my kids loose and watching what they’ll do with the sand.

About a week ago, for instance, I buried myself in a book and when looked up, my two boys had dug a hole that looked nearly big enough to bury a body. My daughter, meanwhile, was happily running back and forth to the water with her plastic cups so she could build a sand condo (that’s what I’m calling it, since it was not nearly large enough to be considered a proper castle). Within a few minutes, however, they were as likely to have destroyed whatever they had made and started over, either improving on the last version or building something entirely new.

I suspect this is what’s happening to the CTO role in a lot of organizations. You get a sense of it when you look around at what other people are saying about the concept of a tech chief.

At one end of the spectrum is Forbes, which has recently published a two-part series looking at the relationship between the CTO and the CEO, and how to improve it. This is the kind of thing you only do once a role has matured to the point where those at the top are truly paying attention to what’s going on. It’s also the kind of thing you do when the role isn’t delivering the kind of value organizations are expecting. I wrote the same kind of story myself about CIOs and later CMOs in various publications.

Then there’s an excellent post on CMSWire looking at the notion of a “fractional CTO” — in other words, a CTO who is either entirely virtual or merely serving an organization as a kind of embedded consultant. I’ve seen a number of “vCIOs” and fractional CMOs around as well, but in this case it almost sounds like companies aren’t entirely sure they should commit to someone leading their technology efforts full time. This is despite the fact that so many organizations now describe themselves as a technology company, or at least technology-driven.

One thing that might help matters is seeing a few more CTOs gain some visibility to establish what success looks like. Although they occasionally become part of panel discussions, I rarely see CTOs giving keynotes at events. The exception is when the audience is primarily developers, but it would be more compelling if CTOs were talking to more of their counterparts in marketing, IT and even sales. I do see CTOs on webinars occasionally, but again, not ones that are aimed at a wider line of business audience.

At least it’s becoming easier to listen to them privately. I’ve come across a number of interesting-sounding CTO podcasts in my research, including The CTO Advisor, Modern CTO and CTOs at Work. Maybe some of them should try embracing new channels. Despite its considerable capabilities for telling stories through video and photography, for instance, looking for CTO-related content on Instagram turned up nothing, at least for me.

In time, I think what makes a great CTO will become more apparent to organizations. We’ll get there faster, however, if they find more opportunities to step out of their own sandbox.

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Shane Schick

Shane Schick

Shane Schick is the Editor-in-Chief of B2B News Network. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and was the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.