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3 CTO Role Models

by Chris Curran on April 11, 2011 [email] [twitter]

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Given the game-changing possibilities of information technology and the ever-increasing complexity of the corporate IT platform, it is time to consider elevating enterprise leadership roles along-side the CIO. The first place for us to start is with the Chief Technology Officer. While the CIO role and scope of responsibility is more understood, the CTO and her role is much less clear.

While I don’t have a formula that will work in every case, the successful CTO’s that I’ve seen fit into three models. See what you think.

CTO as Technology Strategist

An old friend of mine left the consulting world several years ago to take a job as the CTO for a healthcare company.  At the time, the CIO was close to retirement and was not a hands-on organizational leader.  So, that left my friend and the VP of Applications, a very senior and experienced IT leader, to figure out how to divvy up responsibilities.  Because the company’s application platform was large and complex and they had a robust portfolio of new investments, the VP of Applications had her hands full managing hundreds of project managers, developers and 3rd parties.  What remained was not only the infrastructure and architecture functions, but also overall planning, roadmapping and budgeting for IT.  In this case, it also included the IT innovation function. Given his strategic technology consulting background, he was a good fit for this kind of role.  I think this worked with only 2 reporting to the CIO because they were both very strong leaders.

CTO as Chief Architect

One of my old insurance clients operated in this model for many years.  Like the example above, this CTO was a very strong technologist and architect but lacked the leadership experience and organizational savvy needed to operate in the broader IT strategy role.  That said, he was very effective as the senior most technology leader in the organization and was embedded in most meaty discussions ranging from operational outages to new major web investments.  Interestingly, this organization had an enterprise architecture organization with an additional leader - it wasn’t led directly by the CTO.  It struck me as odd at first but the director of the EA group was more of an organizational manager rather than an architect so the two co-existed nicely.

CTO as Head of IT Infrastructure

I think the most traditional model is one in which she is responsible for the IT platform and its operations.  This scope of responsibility is obviously much more critical today with the array of outsourcers and emerging cloud options to consider.

One interesting case of the CTO role is in the high-tech industry.  For these companies, the CTO can wear many more hats including chief software engineer, head of product development and many others.  At one telecom provider I worked with, the CTO was responsible for the revenue network and the CIO was responsible for the enterprise systems and network.

A New Role Model?

Borrowing a page from the high-tech industry, I would like to see another CTO model - one that is focused on leading business innovation using IT.  Most organizations struggle to clearly define the role of IT in innovation.  Why not make it a senior leader’s primary mission?

I would love to get your reactions to this model and to learn what you’ve seen work and not work, especially as you see these models combined in practice.


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  • Peter Kretzman

    Interesting post. But I think I disagree with a key premise: “the CIO role and scope of responsibility is more understood” As I noted in my own post(s) on this matter (e.g., “The title issue: CTO vs CIO, and why it’s the wrong question” at ), neither role is actually crystal-clear in definition or practice, and it’s easy to find examples of CIOs reporting to CTOs and vice versa.  I don’t have a problem with that, and find that people get a little too caught up in the titles and what they have to mean universally.

    I argue instead for the ascendancy of the notion that there needs to be one senior technology executive with clear overview responsibility of all the areas you cite.  There (typically) can’t be one guy/gal who focuses mostly on strategy, for example, while some other peer at the executive level handles all the messy implementation details. I’ve found throughout my career that IT/business strategy and tactics need to dovetail closely, and someone with a clear understanding of both areas needs to have management purview over both, with (of course) able lieutenants who execute at that person’s direction. It is at an organization’s peril that strategy and tactical approaches are crisply divided, without recognizing the need for this synergy.

  • Anonymous

    I see to  many cases where the CTO is essentially a cost management machine. Sometimes that’s necessary, but having managed the standardization necessary, companies need to be changing the CTO focus (and probably the CTO) because the next round of value (after stability, and cost management) needs to be innovation. The manage costs mind-set and the innovate/create mindset are poles apart. It is very hard to be both.
    But here’s a cultural issue. If you have a cost-management CTO, what do you with him/her when the infrastructure is under control? It’s likely to have been a senior position, and the ongoing stability requires a light watching brief - no longer such a senior position.
    Business level innovation means thinking “up the stack” - into application architecture, solution patterns, abstractions, components, interfaces. Many of the cost focussed CTOs tend to think lower in the stack - DBMS, middleware, hardware, application servers, web servers. Plumbing all. Necessary stuff but not sufficient, especially as in many cases that can be outsourced and managed into the cloud.

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