The Evolution of the CTO and CIO Role

Management · Technology · Solutions · Leadership

The evolution of the CTO and CIO role. How the CIO and CTO job functions have evolved to become one, multifaceted role.

In the past three decades I’ve held executive, management and technical jobs at nine different organizations; some very large, some in between and some, just start-ups with good intentions and few resources.  During that time I’ve worked with some very good CTOs/CIOs and I’ve worked with some very bad ones. And while I was always able to learn something from all of them, I always found it interesting that until recently (the past ten years or so), the CIOs all sort of acted as CIOs, the CTOs behaved like CTOs and what I call the “operational” technology executives equally held either title. 

Naturally there are always some variations in performance and objectives within the same title based upon the size and type of the organization and the individual’s skillset, but in a traditional sense, CIOs tend to be “business focused”, while the CTOs are “product focused” and the “operational” technology executives have their eyes on cost containment, process and automation.

Traditional Technology Officer Roles

When discussing these categories with others I have defined the “business focused” CIO as an individual with a vision for leveraging technology to help create new and innovative sales and revenue channels.  An individual that keeps an eye on technology risks, legal liabilities, compliance, and marketing impacts first, then works with the technology team in an administrative capacity to deliver on their commitments.

The “product focused” CTO has an understanding of the business components at play, and certainly is involved with sales and marketing, but their focus is much more technical than the CIO.  Their vision involves the technical delivery of a product or service that requires considerable analytical problem solving, solutions knowledge and engineering capabilities. The CTO works heavily with product development and the technology team to deliver on their plans, then focuses on the business aspects.

And finally, the “operational” technology officer is what I consider the blend of CIO and CTO; with the blend leaning either direction based upon the organization’s needs.  These individuals work at service companies and manufacturing businesses as technology administrators, business and process analysts, and automation experts. Their focus is on controlling product and service delivery, operational cost of goods, resource overhead, customer service and systems administration.

Regardless of the traditional focus of each role, the technology officer is the liaison between all business units with regard to technology and in some capacity is involved, or should be involved, in all aspects of the business.

Fast Forward To Today

Now that we have defined the three types of technology officers at a high level, let’s fast forward to today, where business and technology have advanced to the point an organization no longer has a choice whether to include technology as a part of their operations, services or products.

Mobile/wireless networks, the Internet of Things, Cloud Services and Machine Learning have created competition between organizations in all industries and in order to remain relevant, companies must transform their organizations to encompass these new innovations and revenue streams.

Evolve Or Else

Obviously mobile and wireless networks have driven a considerable amount of transformation over the past decade.  Unless your business is directly related to mobile devices or in support of mobile networks, at some point in the near past all organizations have realized that in order to reach this new audience they must have a mobile app or a mobile device of some kind to interface their products and services with these new consumers.  

At this point of epiphany, organizations traditionally planned by the CIO or “operational” role types were faced with a very technical and product-oriented problem; how to develop a mobile interface to their services that behaved an awful lot like a product, but didn’t necessarily relate directly to the company’s core business.  In a lot of cases, mobile apps were developed that were simply ecommerce extensions, not too big a shift for a CIO…hire the right technical talent and job done. But the really savvy tech officers realized there was a lot more that could be done with a mobile app; like advertising, marketing gamification, closer social networking ties, convenient payment methods, and a feature rich, more personalized consumer experience pre/post sale; which translates into new upsell and cross-sell opportunities.

Enter the era of the Internet of Things.  IoT has presented challenges for all technology officer types.  The measurement and collection of data, and how to successfully utilize that data to benefit the business, falls into that traditional CIO responsibility, but in the same breath the engineering and rollout of physical devices into a labyrinth of different ecosystems is clearly the domain of the CTO.  And let’s not forget about operations and how these device implementations and analytical datasets impact the consumer experience and service delivery. As the integration of IoT devices and services continues to grow, the role of the technology officer must evolve to encompass these new challenges.

Inject cloud services into the mix and the blurring of job responsibilities becomes even more pronounced.  Cloud services, through isolation and abstraction of significant infrastructure and application services, have made all forms of technology executive equal.  Just by standardizing these services across three or four major vendors, the need for technology executives to implement novel and oftentimes esoteric infrastructure and application architectures has been eliminated.  Albeit cloud services implementations can and are still very complex depending upon requirements, the CTO and CIO roles have the same potential to implement solutions that check off the objectives inherent in both job categories.

And finally Machine Learning must be considered as another disruptive technology that challenges both of the traditional CIO and CTO responsibilities.  Similar to how IoT is driving new requirements, machine learning initiatives are creating products and services from datasets not previously accessible or even conceived.  And outputs from these neural networks have delivery implications that span the entire enterprise. From internal analytics, competitive advantage, operational efficiency, personalized consumer content and support, and new product and service opportunities, the CIO / CTO must evolve to meet these cross-functional challenges.

To Be Or Not To Be

So is it, or should it be, possible to tell these job functions apart anymore?  To remain relevant in this technologically advanced business culture, my feeling is that the CIO and “operational” technical officer job functions must change to encompass the role once held by CTOs.  And to compensate for this infringement, the traditional CTO must acquire more business, operations and sales skills to remain competitive. These transformations, in effect, have rendered the traditional, siloed CIO and CTO responsibilities obsolete.




“After decades working as an executive leader and solutions architect for corporations, small businesses and startups, I founded Avemac Consulting to share this knowledge and to build a first class team of consultants dedicated to helping companies solve their most difficult problems, develop innovative services and plan their future growth initiatives.”

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