The real reasons for the rise of the CTO

More often than not, conventional wisdom is wrong because it's born of conventional thinking. One such example of that is the assumption that the rise of the chief technology officer was a phenomenon of the great dot-com era.

More often than not, conventional wisdom is wrong because it's born of conventional thinking. One such example of that is the assumption that the rise of the chief technology officer was a phenomenon of the great dot-com era.

The truth is exactly the opposite. The rise of the CTO in the dot-com era was a recognition that companies were betting their existence on the technology infrastructure choices they made. Now granted, in the US economy we are seeing fewer CTO positions being created, a fact that the executive recruitment firm John J Davis in New York recently observed. But recruiters know little about what the people they recruit actually do in their positions, so this firm may be forgiven when it erroneously concludes that in this economy there is less need for someone to have a specific CTO title within an IT organisation.

In fact, the speaker and attendee list at InfoWorld's just-finished CTO Forum in San Francisco only highlights the fact that there is more need today than ever before. In this type of economy, IT organisations get one chance to get it right, which means that technical acumen of a CTO is at an all time premium.

Davis further notes that fewer than 10% of major companies have a CTO. But if you look at the 10% that have a CTO, they are all the leading companies in their field. What sets those companies apart from their competitors is an emphasis on understanding the true value of technology. In addition, just about every single company in the past five years that has made any headway against an established incumbent player in its market usually has had a CTO on its senior leadership team.

The truth is that more than 90% of all major companies already have someone playing the role of the CTO in some other title, such as vice president of technology or chief architect.

If you check out the CTO Zone portion of Infoworld.com, Tom Berray, executive director for Cabot Consultants, and his colleague Raj Sampath do an excellent job of defining the CTO position in a paper called The Role of the CTO: Four Models of Success.

Later this year, Roger Smith, group CTO of Titan Systems, will separately publish his MBA research paper The Role of the Chief Technology Officer in the Strategic Application of Technology, in a management journal. Created as part of his MBA programme at the University of Maryland, the paper succinctly sums up the role of the CTO:

"The CIO already provided strong expertise on the internal application of technology. But senior managers also needed expert advice regarding the inclusion of technologies in existing products and the creation of new products and services with large technical components. A CTO [who] is actively involved in monitoring new technologies, separating marketing rhetoric from technical facts, and identifying profitable applications for those technologies can make a significant difference in the company's competitive future."

Both papers, which are based on exhaustive research rather than supposition as in the case of Davis, will be made available at CTO Forum.

Vizard is editor in chief of Infoworld (US) and InfoWorld.com. Send letters for publication in Computerworld NZ to Computerworld Letters.

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