CTO job description: What does a CTO do?

More than a glorified IT manager, a CTO can have real clout in an organisation

Chief technology officers, more often known as CTOs, are usually the people in charge of a company's IT department. As technology became increasingly more important to businesses, the role has grown in stature in recent years, with some CTOs, such as AWS' Werner Vogels or Cisco’s Susie Wee, enjoying a somewhat celebrity status.

It takes a broad skillset to be a CTO, but also a specific mindset. For example, what attracted Moonpig CTO Peter Donlon to the role was the pace of change: "Standing still will never be good enough in IT and that works for me. I always want to learn more,” he told the IT Pro Panel.

The role of the CTO involves predicting what the business will need in the future, whether it is hardware or software, and determining whether it has enough quality to meet its operational goals. That is why the role requires an appropriate knowledge of a number of current systems and devices, but also involves keeping an eye (and an open mind) on future technologies and processes. 

A CTO’s job is also to select and maintain a team which will be capable of doing the same. This often involves being able to identify appropriate members of staff who will be upskilled, as well as implementing training initiatives designed to keep the workforce up to a certain standard.

As digital transformation becomes more important for businesses to keep up with competitors, the role of a CTO has become more prevalent and more widespread than in previous years. This means the scope of the job has grown and there is more responsibility to ensure success.

What does a CTO do?

The CTO won't always be the head of engineering; that, in a lot of circumstances, will be the vice president of engineering. They don't have to be the best engineer or, in fact, any kind of engineer. However, they do have to have the necessary skills to communicate complicated technical goals to non-technical people and make them enthusiastic about the possibilities it can offer.

They must manage the technology an organisation uses by working with other C-suite officers to maximise an organisation's potential and take advantage of any technology that could add to a company's bottom line. An executive first and a technologist second, a CTO will look at the short-term and long-term needs of an organisation and make use of capital to make investments that will help a business achieve its objectives.

They will develop procedures and policies and exploit technology to improve products and services that centre on external customers. They will talk to customers, both internally and externally, try to understand their problems from the technology standpoint and help them understand the technology an organisation uses. They must ensure the proper balance between business and technology strategies, taking in information and distilling it into the important trends that show where a company needs to go next.

CTOs need to evangelise to inspire people inside and outside the company and drive change where necessary. They can also act as magnets for talent, pick the best candidates and foster them to become leaders in the future. They can create an environment where developers can come together to achieve ambitious goals.

Increasingly, CTOs are a driving force in organisation's digital transformation efforts, as they are ideally placed to know how such technologies will impact employees and how they can be used to achieve business goals and modernise processes, as well as make existing workflows more efficient.

What skills does a CTO need?

Some of the key skills needed by a Chief Technology Officer are:

  • Communication: a large part of a CTO's role involves helping less technical people understand how technology will help them achieve business goals, often at many different levels in the business. They also have to be able to communicate effectively the other way, and clearly explain business goals to more technical people.
  • Leadership: CTOs have to have outstanding leadership skills to be able to enact their strategy and convince both C-suite and management to invest in various technologies. They also have to be able to inspire the various teams they manage to work towards the company's big vision.
  • Business development: being able to work to achieve high-level business goals is an important skill for anyone in the C-suite. A good CTO will keep on top of industry trends and emerging technologies in order to help the business stay competitive.
  • Financial: the day-to-day role will require a firm grasp of complex projects and finances, as well as things like resource allocation and software licensing. Having strong financial skills will mean a CTO can effectively budget for their organisation's technology needs.
  • Technical: these skills are native to many CTOs who will have started their careers as engineers or coders. Having a good understanding of the various technologies the organisation is working with is a critical part of this role.

A CTO needs to work with the CEO on strategy and anticipate business decisions that could influence the technical direction of a company. The CTO can advise a CEO on technical bets, provide options and spell out how these options with help the organisation's overall direction.

The CTO will also work with the VP of engineering or product heads to make sure any work is aligned with the technology vision. They must champion these team's opinions and feedback to the rest of the company.

Additionally, the CTO will support the efforts of an organisation's marketing teams and work with them to develop strategies that create communities around products.

A competent CTO will be the voice of the company, customers, and employees. Their insight can be invaluable as they can take a step back and see the bigger picture.

In terms of qualifications, many organisations will require an advanced degree such as an MBA, as the role involves a great deal of complex financial, business, and management skills.

How much are CTOs paid?

As the name suggests, the Chief Technology Officer is an executive-level role and the salary matches accordingly, with the average base pay for the UK estimated at around 89,500 a year. This can range from 39k to a high of 156k at some companies, and will often include additional bonuses and incentives. 

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