The Next Big Thing
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Qualities of a Great CTO

technical servant.pngI was talking with a group of technologists the other day about what makes a great Chief Technologist. We looked at how they contribute to the success of an organization.


Many people think that the main value a CTO provides is their technology expertise. Many times it couldn’t be further from the truth. One skill that I’ve always found that makes a difference is the ability to understand the workings of the organization both from a process and a interpersonal perspective and communicate what needs to be done effectively. Yes, good technical skills are the cost of entry to the role (if you don’t have that you shouldn’t have gotten the job), but it is the bigger picture view of value generation using the technology that makes a technologist stay in the role. This holistic perspective allows them to play a critical role in an executive team, contributing to the strategy, yet interacting from a perspective appropriate for the audience. They can be a servant for the organizations technical needs.


An effective CTO needs to:

  1. Align action to strategy – The best CTOs are strategists who don’t just focus on technical initiatives, but align those initiatives to corporate objectives. They can step above the instantaneous gratification of operational efforts and issues and strive to move the organization forward.
  2. Contribute innovation – Each organization within a business has its own issues and strengths and hopefully plays a role to the success of the entire business. The CTO needs to hear and understand this diversity of need – since in that diversity is the opportunity for innovation. They then need to be able to clearly articulate new ideas in ways that others can support. To be a leader, you must have followers.
  3. Delivery results – The CTO must enable fast action that can be measured and understood in the context of the corporate objectives. Having in place a flexible architecture that allows for a nimble response to business drivers is a key role for the CTO.
  4. Be visionary – The CTO needs to be at least slightly ahead of the curve, helping the organization skate to where the puck is going to be, not just following behind the market. Once again this means that they must be able to communicate that vision and in many cases allow others to take credit for the results.
  5. Govern – The CTO needs to define the structure for how things should look and be able to measure the organizations alignment to that structure. They also need to be able to adjust accordingly when those standards can’t be met.

There is more to a CTO than just technology. A CTO needs to be respected advisor, mentor and teammate. 

EvaBrian | ‎12-22-2011 02:45 PM

A successful CTO must do the following:


1. Align to the Strategy. A good leader can work strategically in the best interests of the company as a whole. The best CTOs are competent strategists who don't just focus on engineering initiatives but make decisions that align with the company's overall vision. They will be able to communicate these decisions and the reasoning behind them to their team, while rallying support for the company's goals. Sometimes objectives will overlap and sometimes they won't. The CTO needs to be able to differentiate and execute only on what's pertinent.


2. Contribute to the Innovation Discussion. Each department has different responsibilities and varying strengths, but each makes an integral contribution as part of a cohesive unit. Critical conversation among the leaders of each department is key to integration success. Obviously, the CTO must be able to clearly communicate from an expert engineering perspective, but he or she also must be able to hear and understand other points of view, concerns and needs with regard to the entire customer experience. Responsible communication will likely lead to innovation and should increase the reach and usability of the company's technology.


3. Be Agile and Deliver Results. The CTO must lead the engineering department in a quick and creative response to necessary change, while keeping the company's business goals clearly in sight at all times. The difference between a great engineering department and an ineffective one is agility and the ability to accomplish what is expected in a timely manner. A great team under a great leader will get the job done every time. The CTO must deliver results despite unforeseen obstacles and clearly communicate project status to both engineering employees and the executive team. Any unexpected and unnecessary lag time will have a negative impact on the whole company.


4. Be a Leader in Software Development and Scalability. For, technology lends a competitive edge. Our CTO leads the charge in staying ahead of the curve, buying, integrating and building the software that differentiates our business from the competition and enhances the customer experience. The CTO also must ensure that all systems and software can scale to the demands of growth. The ability to focus and never lose sight of the basics is imperative.


5. Be Accountable via Unified Metrics. To run an efficient organization, the CEO and CTO must agree on metrics. Engineering team goals and the coinciding Key Performance Indicators should align with overall company aspirations (e.g., high conversion rate), system efficiency goals (e.g., fast page load) and availability standards (e.g., uptime). A mishmash of metrics indicates a miscommunication somewhere along the line. Lack of agreement could lead to misguided development, a rogue department and an inefficient business.


6. Run a Tight Ship. Despite high demands and the pressure to deliver the best of everything on time, CTOs must run an increasingly efficient engineering organization. Shrewd management of the business-within-the-business will ultimately result in better cash flow and higher earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) margins for the company as a whole.


There's no doubt that complementary strengths and personalities make a better CEO-CTO relationship, but when it comes to the nuts and bolts of what works, basic expectations must be met. The CEO relies on the CTO to administer the technical intricacies of a business and to hone those intricacies to the objectives at hand. A superstar CTO will do that, but will also bring experience, knowledge, balance, accountability, management skills and business acumen to the executive roundtable.

There's much more to a CTO than technology. A CTO is first and foremost a chief officer-a respected advisor and team-mate of the chief executive. The responsibility of the job is immense, and the importance of the relationship is undeniable.

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