A number of years ago I was doing a video interview with the CIO for a large, well-known retail company. Overall he sounded like he loved his job. It just wasn’t exactly the job he wanted.
“I originally came in with a CTO role,” he said. “Now I’m the CIO. I guess (that role) kind of follows me around.”
Only now do I really appreciate what he meant. I had always kind of assumed that, given the choice, most IT-oriented business leaders would aspire to be CIO. Even when CIOs and CTOs are positioned more or less equally within an organization, there’s often a sense that the CIO is the one who really has ear of the board or other members of the senior leadership team. After years of being ignored, CIOs have increasingly become key figures inside many organizations, while many firms have gotten away without having a CTO.
As a CIO, however, you’re inevitably managing a particular set of tools and how they’re used across the company. You’re making strategic investments and working collaboratively with the departments, perhaps, but you’re essentially charged with deploying other people’s products and making sure they don’t crash.
A CTO, on the other hand, has the opportunity to truly innovate, creating new applications from the ground up, or adopting them in such a way that they truly become the organization’s own. In many cases you’re not only creating value but some form of intellectual property. It’s creative, it’s often customer-focused, and it’s less about trying to reduce costs and downtime so much as positioning the enterprise for whatever the future holds.
And yet, perhaps because they’re not uniformly or consistently appointed in the majority of organizations, you don’t see a lot of CTO-specific research. I’ve never been invited to a CTO-oriented conference. If there are some really major B2B CTO industry associations out there, I’m surprisingly unaware of them. It feels like less of a community than you find with, say, chief digital officers (CDOs), who are similar to CTOs but work with an arguably more limited set of technologies.
Another key difference with CTOs and their cousins within the C-Suite is that it feels less open to those without a more technical background. You don’t hear of CMOs quietly usurping the CTO position, for example. No one suggests CTOs will one day become the organization’s CEO. The career path is less clear, even if the results of the best CTOs’ work truly transforms an organization.
The one thing that’s changed amid all this is the rise of startups and the increased emphasis across all companies on product management. I do come across a number of CTOs within startups, because founders often have that technical background, or at least value it as a source of strength and potential differentiation. And while they may not take the place of a chief product officers, CTOs can sit rather well between IT and product groups, bringing them together in ways that benefit each other as well as the organization’s end customers.
With that in mind, it’s time to start paying CTOs a bit more attention, which is exactly what we’re doing this month on B2BNN. If we agree that every company is now a sort of technology company, it makes sense it should have its own chief — someone who should be given their due.