The Four CTOs

by Minda Zetlin, May 2010

The top-line focus of the chief technology officer (CTO) can manifest itself differently in various organizations, but CTOs usually fall into four distinct groups:

The IT CTO. In many large organizations, especially those that offer nontechnological consumer products, the CTO is part of the IT organization and reports to the CIO. “In that world, the CTO owns things such as infrastructure capabilities that the consumer doesn’t see and that touch consumers less directly than the applications a CIO manages, such as sales, marketing, and e-commerce applications,” notes Juan Luis Betancourt, principal at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles.

The product CTO. On the other hand, in companies that offer technology products such as software, or in industries where technology is essential to a company’s success (in the insurance industry, for example), the CTO role can be something else entirely. “In some corporations, it can mean a product- or marketing-oriented role,” says John Stevenson, president of JG Stevenson Associates. “Many technology vendors have CTOs who in fact are responsible for product development. Those companies are careful not to have the CTO title anywhere within the corporate IT group.”

The company founder. In many startup technology companies, the company’s founder or cofounder winds up with the CTO title. Why? “Usually the founder is the technologist who had the brilliant idea and created the new company,” says Steve Watson, managing director at executive search firm Stanton Chase. “In a lot of new companies, that person serves as CEO initially. When the company gets larger and more mature, it recruits a business professional to be the CEO.” The founder then retains the CTO title.

The CIO in disguise. “In some organizations, CTO is the new title in vogue,” Watson says. “It’s really a CIO position, perhaps with a stronger focus on technology and product management. A company that drives its business through technology may use that title, but in many cases, it includes traditional CIO responsibilities.”

Using the CTO rather than CIO title may also indicate that a company is increasingly depending on the cloud for its mission-critical technology, he adds. “Software as a service, service-oriented architecture, and cloud computing in general may often fall under the CTO title. So if a company is making a change to these methodologies, it may use the CTO title instead of CIO.”

For More Information
CIO or CTO—What’s in a Title?

Minda Zetlin is coauthor, with Bill Pfleging, of The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don’t Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive (Prometheus Books, 2006).


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