The evolving role of the CTO

Since spending more time at home, my appetite for reading has increased. In fact, I recently picked up again one of my favorites – J. R. R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, a conversation between Frodo and Gandalf goes something like this:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us…”

CTO role

The CTO role keeps changing

Such is also the fate of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Many things are beyond their control. Yet, in times of crisis, CTOs are relied upon. They often peer into the future and must address dangers to the business and contend with many unknowns. The key to being a successful CTO is deciding the best things to do with what’s in front of us.

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has placed extensive demands on CTOs who have had to redesign or redistribute technology resources in rapid order with minimal time to research, strategize and execute.

In partnership with IT managers, hybrid work environments had to be constructed and deployed to accommodate remote workers. The number one priority (in addition to equipping employees with devices) was to secure the distributed network against evolving cybersecurity threats.

Now the question is: where do we go from here? Years’ worth of digital transformation progress was made in a matter of weeks. How will we now maintain and scale these systems for years to come? How do we future proof for other disruptions? These questions are what CTOs and their staff are now grappling with.

Being a CTO is about more than just choosing technology solutions or making sure people can work from home successfully. The CTO role is changing to encompass supply chain resiliency, communications solutions and support for sales teams, preventing technological surprise and meeting broader business unit needs.

In this environment, a CTO’s unique combination of technical and institutional knowledge has only become more vital. The CTO must be much more than a technical expert. They must be knowledgeable about every aspect of the business from HR to Finance and everything in between.

Clearly communicating the evolving role of tech across sales, security and more

According to Deloitte, more than half of CEOs say that tech leaders in their companies will be key drivers of business strategy. Filling that role means wearing many hats, the specifics of which differ from enterprise to enterprise.

The CTO doesn’t necessarily even sit in the same place in every management hierarchy. For example, depending on who runs the IT department, the CIO reports to the CTO, and vice versa. The common thread: CTOs have to be versatile.

Some companies see the CTO as an interface between the firm’s customers and its knowledge, capabilities and products. This is largely a sales leadership role, where a CTO can use their technical expertise to connect services and clients. Other times, the CTO is charged with ensuring employees can interact with one another, enabling collaboration, communication and innovation.

What’s important for any organization today, whether it’s an SMB, federal agency or large enterprise, is that the role of the CTO is adaptable to manage disparate tasks: from serving as a C-suite partner advising on operational decisions to counseling customers on specific services.

Of course, CTOs must understand technology in great detail, but they also need to be able to articulate how technology works in a way that average individuals understand.

They must be able to communicate clearly with decision-makers from all departments on issues ranging from cybersecurity to sales enablement platforms to secure supply chains. This is what we call a “T” shaped individual: depth in their specific field of expertise and breath in all other business areas. The best CTOs are truly Renaissance individuals.

Meeting transformation with expansive knowledge and sharp agility

Research from McKinsey demonstrates that companies that are aware of new technologies and work to build them into their operating models tend to be more successful than those that do not. The responsibility for finding those technologies, understanding them and incorporating them into an enterprise’s strategy at the proper scale falls squarely on the CTO.

Greater digitization has only increased the number of innovative technologies CTOs need to track. The market for global digital transformation products and services is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 22.5 percent from 2020 to 2027.

Greater digitization has also made CTOs more valuable because it has dramatically and substantially expanded their sphere of influence. Increased reliance on technology throughout companies offers CTOs more insights into lines of business and back-office operations.

These insights can be valuable in finding efficiencies and opportunities to innovate. What’s more, the increased reliance on technology means CTOs often have visibility into talent, operations, and partners as well.

As more potential disruptions loom, the fact that every organization looks at its technology roles differently is a good thing, because the people filling those roles also have diverse backgrounds and will bring their own unique perspectives to the job. For example, my own strong background in engineering combined with a doctorate in economics has given me a different view on technologies from some of my peers.

The circumstances surrounding the COVID pandemic have made the blend of deep institutional knowledge and a wide breadth of technical aptitude an essential combination for any agile CTO.

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