- The dot-com era saw the growth of the CTO title, because internet technology was so clearly entwined with the prevailing business model.
Post-meltdown, CTOs are still in demand because corporate executives see wisdom in putting a visionary technologist in a top executive role.
But is that role the domain of just the CTO? How does today's CTO differ from the traditional CIO? And where are the two titles headed?
The answers vary by industry and by company size and culture, according to executive recruiters Tom Berray and John Davis. InfoWorld editors asked Berray, who specialises in IT executive placements for Cabot Consultants in Tysons Corner, Virginia, and Davis, president of recruitment firm John Davis Associates in New York, to discuss where the CTO role is headed.
Berray: One of the things that came out of the dot-com era is that nearly all companies are looking to have both the CTO and CIO.
Davis: We saw during the dot-com heyday that the CTO was the individual who knew the most about the technology product capability and reliability. The CTO could talk not only to the product's reliability, but deliverability.
Berray: Today, I see that there are different roles for the CTO. [See Berray's paper, The Role of the CTO: Four Models for Success] In organisations that are very information-oriented and -intensive, the CTO is likely the senior of those two people -- more strategic and business-oriented and a member of the executive management team. In some cases, the CIO may report to the CTO.
Whereas in a more asset-oriented company, the CIO may be the more senior executive, and the CTO might be an infrastructure manager, or [the CTO follows] the "big thinker" model and reports to the CIO. Regardless of whether organisations have identified and rationalised those titles, [companies] have both the CIO and CTO roles.
Davis: What I see you defining, Tom, under the title of the CTO, we have found to be resident in the CIO role -- we've not run into prevalence in the CTO title. Now this may be on the horizon.
The CIO world that we serve is composed of individuals who do have the responsibility for delivering technology solutions to their business customers. By that, I mean internally to the functions that they serve through the delivery of technology solutions to business problems or the enhancement of business opportunities in their various marketplaces.
Berray: I've seen the CTO role and the title being adopted in the larger, more traditional companies. I think that the dot-com explosion helped proliferate the title in ... $US20 billion-type companies.
Davis: I just want to comment on that. You look at the whole spectrum of strategy to the tactical delivery of technology resources, perhaps the CTO role in a visionary sense: Is that the kind of luxury that can only be afforded by, as you said, a $US20 billion-plus-type organisation?
Berray: That really depends. I would also differentiate this visionary role by how much information or technology services are a percentage of the end product. If it's a high percentage, like a consulting company or a dot-com company or ...
Davis: ... then you're going to run into more CTOs.
Berray: The size of the organisation is less important. Where you have physical goods and assets that make up a larger percentage of the end product that goes to external clients, you still see CTO roles, even in smaller companies. But it's in larger companies that the CTO title is more staff-oriented -- focused on planning, strategy, processes, reporting, rather than line-oriented, unless the CTO is an infrastructure manager.
Davis: You'll find that in organisations that embrace a shared services model as well.
Berray: The CTO title is being adopted at a much faster rate than the CIO title was adopted. I think that most companies will have both roles, where the CTO is going to be person who, as a general rule, is going to be more focused on external products and services, delivering those products and services to external-based clients. And the CIO, as a general rule, will be focused on using technology internally to leverage the business. Both roles will be focused on how to help the business use technology to increase revenues and speed; decrease costs and time; and increase customer satisfaction.
Davis: Yes, but Tom, wouldn't you agree that what you've just said really is going to be driven by the type of business? A business that is much more focused on IT products and offerings is going to have a greater, and therefore an increasing, need for the CTO role than you would find in a non-IT business.
Berray: I disagree with that. I think in all companies the ability to leverage IT can so dramatically affect the business that you're going to continue to see both roles in all organisations. Because regardless of what their actual business is, IT is significantly affecting the business.
Davis: I think you and I agree on the point that most organisations functionally have all or part of the externally facing role -- and some do and some don't have the CTO title.
Berray: I think it's a lot more about culture within the organisation. I did a CTO placement last year where we went back and forth with the client and said, "The truth is, the way you've described this role is more the traditional CIO role." They said, "We really like the CTO title a lot better, we think it connotes ..."
Davis: ... So that became a cultural choice.
Berray: We're going to recruit the proper person regardless of what you call it.
Davis: This is the age-old problem of sticking titles on function. Frequently, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and a CIO in one organisation is not like the CIO in another.