The white paper The Role of the CTO: Four Models for Success written by Tom Berray and Ray Sampath in 2002 is still up to date and provides interesting insight into the role of the CTO based on discussions with hundreds of CIOs and CTOs. In the technology world, industry oriented and shaped by Business Models it proposes a model that dissects the CTO role based on organizational needs, as follows:
CTO as “Infrastructure Manager” With the escalating complexity of information technology (IT) many companies have allocated some of the responsibilities of the traditional Chief Information Officer (CIO) to a CTO. The CIO retains the “staff” role of IT; they oversee technology strategy, executive-level relationships, budgeting, and the fusion of IT and business processes. The question—“How effective is the IT organization?”—remains in the forefront of the CIO’s mind. In model 1, the CTO takes responsibility for the “line” role of IT. He/she runs the infrastructure and operations of IT: data center operations, network operations, applications development & maintenance, security, and other line functions. Thus, the CTO’s focus is to keep the IT organization operating efficiently. Additionally, this CTO generally does not determine how technology will be used to support the organization – the CIO usually retains that responsibility.
CTO as “Big Thinker” The CTO as “Big Thinker” spends his/her time evaluating how technology can be used internally by the business to 1) enable new business models and business lines, 2) increase revenues, and 3) preempt a competitor’s attempts to use technology to disrupt or dislodge his/her company’s market position. This CTO’s responsibilities often include advanced technology, competitive analysis, technology assessment, prototyping lab, partnering, planning, and architecture standards. The CTO may report directly either to the CIO or the CEO, and generally has a small, elite staff. In some cases, they operate alone. Thus, this CTO works mostly from a position of influence – as opposed to direct control like the line manager. Often the CTO has been with the organization for a substantial period, and has built a strong reputation with the senior executive leadership team. The other scenario is a CTO, who comes from outside the organization but has a tremendous public reputation.
CTO as “Technology Visionary and Operations Manager” The CTO as “Technology Visionary and Operations Manager” is usually found in a dot.com or other technology-oriented company where information technology is the key ingredient in implementing business strategy. The CTO is responsible for determining how technology can be used to implement the business strategy. This informs the ‘technology visionary’ aspect of the role. But then subsequently, the CTO is responsible for actually integrating and running the technology, i.e. the role of the ‘operations manager.’ Hence, the CTO must have an excellent combination of both business and technical skills in order to successfully design the functional and technical aspects of the business strategy and then build the IT organization to execute its components. As one of the top executives in the company, this CTO is usually brought in very early in the business life cycle to help get the company off the ground. Often, the CTO is a cofounder of the business and knows his/her best role is staying tuned in with the technology. One common problem we have observed with this model is the following: some CTOs develop new strategies and move technologies rapidly, but do not have the IT management and infrastructure in place to successfully implement these new ideas and technologies. Their zeal for technology innovation outstrips the organization’s capacity to manage rapid change. One of the great challenges of this CTO is to balance the initial expenditure of energy towards product research and innovation while considering the enduring business requirements necessary for building a successful company.
CTO as “External-facing Technologist” The CTO as an “External-facing Technologist” focuses his/her efforts on using technology to provide better products and services to external customers or clients. Nearly every major IT consulting company implements this CTO role. This brand of CTO has to be outwardly focused with respect to external trends and willing to embrace spheres of innovation, which lie in and outside of his/her company. They may not necessarily identify with their organization wholesale, but view themselves as an ether or network, which permeates multiple institutions and industries. In consulting companies, the CTO is usually an equal peer of the CIO or may be considered a higherlevel executive than the CIO (although the CIO does not usually report to the CTO in this case). In this scenario, the CTO’s main role is to develop the strategic technology plan for the organization by identifying, tracking, and experimenting with new and potentially disruptive technologies. The goal is to project and assess technologies’ impact on the corporation and its customers. This differs from the traditional CIO’s technology plan, which most likely focuses on the technologies to support the internal systems of the organization, i.e. running the trains in day-to-day management operations.