How well do you know your CTO?

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In the fast-paced tech industry, it’s no surprise that the role of Chief Technology Officer (CTO) is continually evolving. Your job might look very different to a CTO in another company – but the ideas you need to embrace to reach the top are remarkably similar, says Andy Brown, divisional director at cloud technology specialist Access Alto.

Compare the daily activities of a CTO at a start-up to their counterpart at a global corporation and you’d be forgiven for wondering if it’s actually the same role.  

In a fledgling business, where job descriptions are more fluid anyway, the CTO typically takes a more hands-on approach. Responsible for setting out the company’s technology strategy, this person makes crucial decisions on what software should be deployed, where data is stored and what security measures are needed. Since they have a blank canvas on which to work, they can also set the benchmark for business success. 

At an established firm, where the technologies and processes are already in place, the CTO implements existing strategies rather than devising them from scratch. Yes, they will take the lead when implementing new software – but they usually have a roadmap to follow. Unlike their colleagues in start-ups, they work as part of a wider team, with knowledge shared among more people.   

While no two CTOs are the same, they can be grouped together according to their shared characteristics. Loosely defined, they fall into the following four categories:  

Infrastructure Commander 

In charge of IT infrastructure, you’ll see this CTO at an established firm as opposed to a start-up. Their work usually involves implementing the business’ existing technical strategy, managing the technology blueprint and leading their team on all aspects of implementation, as well as data security, maintenance and network oversight. 

Technology Visionary 

Unlike the Infrastructure Commander, the Technology Visionary can be found in emerging businesses, which draw on the CTO’s skills to conceptualise how technology will be used within the company. This can include systems for supporting operations and driving customer and product success. When setting out the strategy, the CTO is not only looking at what works today, but also how future technology can be aligned to business goals.   

Customer Champion 

In some cases, a CTO is the conduit between a company and its customers, responsible for maintaining relations, understanding the target market and influencing IT projects in a way that meets their needs. You’ll normally see a Customer Champion in tech companies, particularly software providers, but the term can equally apply to any CTO who uses technology to deliver customer excellence and strong UI (user interface) and UX (user experience).   

Big Thinker  

Arguably the most dynamic of the four, this kind of CTO is known for being ambitious and daring. Instead of following a well-trodden path, a Big Thinker is continually pushing the boundaries with the latest technologies, never afraid to ditch something that has become stale or out-dated. Tasked with devising business models and leading on corporate strategy, they are continually thinking ahead of the competition, both conceptually and strategically. 

Their remit allows them to think more ambitiously than the Technology Visionary and most have a close relationship with the CEO, which provides the support and freedom they need to set a high standard. As well as applying their expertise to technology, perhaps developing new platforms, they are also responsible for analysing target markets and planning technological developments. 

The road to success 

Whether you are a CTO, or work alongside one, you’ll no doubt recognise many of these attributes. Of course, these roles are not mutually exclusive, so a CTO could be a visionary who also wants to deliver positive customer experiences – but broadly speaking, it comes down to whether the person is at the drawing board or on the front line. 

Despite the apparent differences in their role, skills and mindset, it’s interesting to note that top CTOs invariably share the same goals, namely, bringing people together, staying ahead of the market and keeping a keen eye on trends that boost business performance. 

Nothing stays still for long in tech, which means a CTO must be adaptive. Trends that once dominated the landscape can be all but redundant in a matter of months, making it all-the-more important that CTOs have a robust understanding of all the products the company deploys. 

While they don’t need to be an expert software developer, programmer and business analyst themselves, they should still know the components and functionality of software if they are to implement and influence the business’ tech strategy. 

As well as technical skills, it is vital that the CTO has a good grasp of business, including what actions will help it push revenue and growth and stand out in the market. Every decision they make will be based on how technology ultimately improves product performance and meets the needs of consumers. The digital revolution has placed technology at the centre of every forward-thinking business, and it’s up to the CTO to ensure they implement the right systems for success. Above all, an effective CTO knows how to bring people together, setting a high standard and pushing their team beyond its perceived limitations. Only by cultivating strong team bonds can they foster the kind of collaboration that generates results and new innovations. 

Key trends 

We may be only able to forecast so far into the future, but below are three industry trends that will shape the role of CTOs now and in the coming years.

Business Analytics 

As more companies adopt data-driven strategies, CTOs will need to implement increasingly specialist software that includes machine learning and sophisticated analytics software. This will provide a ‘top down’ view of different areas of the business.   

Robust security management  

Security has always been on the agenda, but as new technologies are introduced and controls on customer data are stepped up, CTOs will become more heavily involved in preventing cyber attacks. It is down to CTOs to protect networks and data from malware and attacks that could compromise security. 

A team of experts in every field 

Perhaps most importantly, CTOs will take on even more of a generalist role, building teams with the right skills instead of trying to be an expert themselves.  

Now, more than ever before, businesses rely on their CTO to implement and maintain the right technology, which helps teams work closely together to meet customer expectations. With the proliferation of new technologies on the market, particularly cloud-based software, it is also an exciting time for CTOs at the forefront of the digital revolution.  

Andy Brown, Divisional Director at Access Alto

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