The Changing Face of the Modern CTO

A few days ago I published the job description I wrote for the CTO 3Pillar is looking to hire in the next few months. In that post I mentioned the changing face of the CTO.

In the ‘software is your brand’ world, the role of the Chief Technology Officer is just as much about the product as it is about the technology. Modern CTOs are innovators and strategists. They understand revenue models and work closely with user experience designers to build engaging products.

The pocket-protector wearing CTO that spearheads an R&D organization steeped in algorithm development and academic research has few options. The CTO of the future is being called out of the back office and into the C-Suite.

Modern CTOs must excel at collaborating across the business and providing executive leadership. They must maintain their technical expertise, but, business acumen is just as important.

Three organizational models have begun to emerge among product organizations. Each requires a new breed of CTO.

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The CTO as Product Executive

Many organizations have come to expect CTOs to fulfill the product executive responsibilities. They are as much, if not more, Chief Product Officer as they are Chief Technology Officer. This model centralizes product ownership with the CTO possessing ultimate authority and responsibility over the product. The modern CTO defines both the what (product management) and the what (technology, engineering and process) of the product.

In this model, the successful CTO must drive both innovation and results. They not only embrace, but act as the chief evangelist for lean startup methodologies, ensuring that the product is not only built, but, the right product. The successful candidate has come to appreciate customer experience as much as they have software craftsmanship.

This type of product leadership is most common with B2B and B2B2C business models.

The CMO as Product Executive

In most B2C organizations, product ownership resides with the Chief Marketing Officer, who oversees both product marketing and product management functions. This model creates a healthy tension between product ownership (the what) and implementation (the how).

In this organizational model, the successful CTO must collaborate closely with the CMO. The individual provides an innovation engine that can be rapidly recalibrated to build the right product as defined by continuous user feedback. The CTO becomes a chief collaborate with the CMO, two roles that have traditionally combined like oil and water, speaking two totally separate languages. The successful candidate has come to appreciate business language as much as the programming language.

This type of product leadership can also be found in organizations that require a deeper level of technical expertise – such as those with deep algorithmic intellectual property or those relying on embedded software and requiring hardware integration.

The Dedicated Product Executive

Finally, many organizations have a dedicated product executive. This is most common in small organizations, where, the CEO is the product visionary, or, in much larger organizations where the product executive leads a business unit that is supported by shared marketing and technology services organizations.

In this organizational model the successful CTO must be also be politically savvy, learning to collaborate with multiple executives and negotiate different priorities and differences of opinion amongst various stakeholders. In large organization especially, the CTO that operates with dedicated product executives is a versatile executive leader that is able to drive the technical organization while collaborating with multiple business owners.

The role of the CTO has changed. No longer can the Chief Technology Officer limit herself to deep technological expertise. Regardless of the organizational model, the CTO must, at the very least, collaborate in a meaningful way in ongoing product development.

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