What is a CTO? What do they do?

The title CTO is short for Chief Technology Officer. But what actual roles and responsibilities do they have? Every business is different, so there’s no hard and fast set of rules. However, there are some core responsibilities and philosophies that I believe every person with that title should have.

There are two main concerns of a CTO: communication and technology. Let’s dig into the communication first.

When people hear CTO, they often think about technology, and then leadership. It’s obvious there is some level of communication required, but it seems like a very small responsibility in the grand scheme of roles that a CTO has.

I disagree. I would argue that communication is one of the largest responsibilities. See, technology and IT are a form of support for business. Even if your main product is a SaaS or software product, business still is the process of buying and selling, adding value, reducing pain, etc. Therefore, technology is just one of those steps in that process. It’s a support system to getting to the end goal of business which is to satisfy a need.

Because technology is about support, and should not be the main pillar of any business, then it’s important to understand that the business itself probably doesn’t understand technology that well. This is where the communication portion of the CTO role comes in.

To ensure the accurate flow of information from support to business, the CTO needs to communicate clearly and effectively. There will be times of education, of inspiration, of explaining risk, opportunity and costs. In all these situations, the CTO is responsible for communicating these things throughout the other business stakeholders.

It’s vitally important that decision makers are presented with useful information that helps them accurately make the decisions. In this case, communication is coupled with translation. Bringing forth technical information is fine, but chances are the other business stakeholders don’t understand the details. It’s the CTO role’s responsibility to translate this into something that will be understood. That’s effective communication.

Another part of this communication revolves around being an advocate for the technical team. Left unchecked, pure business needs can be quite crushing to a technical team. Without understanding the limits, this destructive death march is no one’s fault. You can’t be blamed for blowing out the engine on your car if there were no redlines on the tachometer. The same thing is necessary for a properly managed technical team: an advocate needs to clearly communicate to stakeholders the limitations in place.

Other teams, such as sales or marketing, reach out and ask for training, budget increases, and tools whenever they want to improve their reach. The same thing is needed in the tech world. A good CTO will make those cases for the management of the programming and IT teams.

In addition to a strong set of communication skills, a CTO must have a vast basis of technical knowledge. This isn’t the same thing as having current hands-on knowledge, though.

The CTO needs to have spent time building a deep well of technical knowledge in a topic or language. It might not be the language or technology that the current company is using, however. That doesn’t matter. The skills of technology all have different mechanisms and dialects, but the underlying traits become more similar the deeper you go.

This is to say, a CTO that has a little knowledge about everything will be less effective than one who has built an earlier part of their career learning something very detailed. The longer you spend learning a particular discipline, the more you learn how to apply those lessons to other places. I’ve seen this in programmers who maybe focused on Javascript for a long time. Once they were put in a PHP project, they could easily pick up the new dialect. Then, they tended to solve problems in architectural ways that were from the Javascript world. While not all of these choices were appropriate or effective, it did broaden the way things were solved and introduced new conversation into the PHP project’s programmers circle.

Having a deeper knowledge sometimes can make a person ‘stuck in their ways,’ though. A great CTO needs to understand that the things they know technically should be used to teach them how to reasonably and rationally react and think through tasks and ask great questions. It does not mean that they understand or can define the exact solutions to every problem. That’s why they should hire people who are more talented than them in a particular set of disciplines while they rest on their extensive experience to help them ask smart questions of their professionals.

The point is, the CTO role, in a lot of cases, spends a lot more time communicating than being a technical wizard. And this is what great CTOs need to understand. That level of leadership and title means a specific change of direction of career, responsibilities and roles. Not every technical person should want to move this direction. And not every technical person is made to be one.

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