Amy Jackson

Engineering Education Now: the Chief Technology Officer

July 9, 2019

As products become more and more infused with technology, the C-suite’s Chief Technology Officer role only becomes more key.

Engineering Education Now: the Chief Technology Officer

The Chief Technology Officer – A Comparison

Last time we talked about how the Chief Information Officer role has recently evolved. This position holds intriguing challenges for engineers.

But there are several other C-suite positions that can be a great fit for someone with an engineering background. One of those positions is the Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Let’s examine this role now.

Many companies have both a CIO and CTO, so it makes sense to compare the two. While the CIO usually manages IT infrastructure, the CTO manages the company’s external-facing technology architecture.

That means that the CIO improves business processes by developing internal tech and solving operational tech problems. In contrast, the CTO focuses on building and enhancing the business’ technology products, defining new markets and meeting customers’ needs.

The Chief Technology Officer – Focus on the Customer

The CTO ensures that the business’ customers receive the best, most efficient technology possible, giving them precisely what they require. Communication skills, including listening, are therefore highly important.

Why is that? Because the CTO is the conduit between the customer and the developers creating the technology. The CTO therefore must understand what people need on the business side while also gaining an understanding of developers’ challenges.

Communication skills are definitely critical, according to Camille Fournier, former CTO of Rent the Runway: “CTOs must communicate highly technical information to non-technical audiences, and they must communicate business information to their technical teams in a way that they can appreciate.”

The CTO also needs to gather feedback on the technology they develop from a wide variety of viewpoints, encompassing gender, age, and race. Otherwise, the CTO runs the risk of developing a product that no one wants.

With feedback from different points of view, the CTO can also include product features that set the business apart from its competitors.

The Chief Technology Officer – Innovation is Key

For the CTO, product innovation is the name of the game. One of the hats this role wears is long-term visionary. Where should the product be positioned in the future? The CTO decides this direction, looking to capitalize on crucial opportunities.

But of course, that means the right innovation at the right time, for the right reasons. If not thought out carefully, innovations can become distractions.

The CTO always has to keep in mind that innovation should only be worked toward to differentiate the product and to make the product easier and friendlier for the customer. If done only for its own sake, innovation inevitably leads to product bloat, and perhaps to an expensive and unmarketable product.

The Chief Technology Officer – A Crucial Conduit

Experts seems to agree on one thing: the CTO must be versatile.

Chris Szymansky, CTO at JazzHR, says, “CTOs work within both the executive and technical teams and wear different hats in each group. Within the technical team, the CTO is a leader who builds teams, inspires them to work creatively towards a big vision, and guides them through tough technical challenges. Within the executive team, the CTO is a partner to each area of the business, working to apply technology in a way that has a positive impact on the company as a whole.”

For Matt Mead, CTO of Chicago-based digital consultancy company SPR, the CTO role is an important part of company cohesion. “I think the CTO can be the glue between technology implementation and product strategy, and can sort of make things really come together and come to life in a way that you don’t see in a lot of organizations today.”

Clearly, the CTO plays an important role in the C-suite, and that role will only expand as tech becomes more and more embedded in all types of products.

Next time: the Chief Transformation Officer.

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