How is the role of the CTO evolving?

As the tech world continues evolving, so too does the role of chief technology officer, or CTO. Transposit recently found that the vast majority of CTOs’ roles had changed over the past three years, with over half (56.4%) citing significant change. Whether a company needs to hire a CTO, or the person currently serving as the chief technology officer wants to know how to excel in the modern landscape, understanding how the job title has shifted is crucial.

The CTO fills multiple roles as needs change

Flexibility is one hallmark characteristic that exemplifies how the CTO role is evolving. A person who thrives in this role must match a company’s brand strategy with IT tactics. That may mean aggressively pursuing emerging technologies, supporting current workflows with new tech tools or applying technology to drive value for customers — among other things.

Thus, the well-evolved CTO understands that their job description does not fit neatly inside rigid parameters. Similarly, the CTO must show a willingness to venture outside their comfort zones, especially when doing so supports a company’s growth needs. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been impacting the CTO role over the past two years, with uncertainty calling for constant evolution to continue innovating.

Today’s CTO will likely lead an enterprise’s digitisation strategy

Having a digital strategy means creating a roadmap concerning the application of digitised tools and techniques to enhance business processes. Korn Ferry conducted a 2019 survey of North American technology officers. The results showed that 41% cited digital transformation as their top strategic priority. Moreover, 34% said they spend most of their time driving a strategy forward.

Many CTOs also viewed a changing company as a vehicle for skill enhancement. Korn Ferry’s data indicated that 46% of those surveyed cited working at a company going through a change as an opportunity that influenced their current capabilities. What’s more, the aforementioned Transposit study revealed that rate of innovation emerged as a new competitive advantage recognised by CTOs over the past year.

A CTO’s familiarity with new technologies puts them in an excellent position to convince other company executives that now is the time to move ahead with plans for improved digitisation. But today’s CTO does not just stay current with technological trends. They are the drivers of how a company transforms thanks to digitisation.

The CTO must be a technological innovator

The CTO role-changing phenomenon also requires these professionals to have a forward-thinking mindset about how certain technologies could strengthen a company’s position in the marketplace relative to its competitors. Thus, a CTO that succeeds today cannot feel content to sit back and see what happens to other companies that experiment with new technologies.

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The modern CTO must instead be bold enough to become an early adopter — at least much of the time. Goldman Sachs and Bank of America are two brands that took the early adoption route with blockchain technology. Those brands and others have plenty of valid reasons for doing so. For example, according to one study, blockchain could reduce operational costs at banks by more than a quarter.

Tristan Jervis, co-leader of the global technology team at Russell Reynolds Associates, also notes that bringing new technologies into the picture means taking a customer-centric view. He explains: “Business models are shifting to adapt to the needs of a more tech-centric, collaborative and agile organisation — and the role of technology leadership is evolving in tandem.

“To make this happen, technology officer roles are moving from a supportive function to becoming key enablers of a company’s transformation agenda and strategy. In [business to consumer] and [business to business] companies alike, this means bringing the customer into the centre of everything they do, and understanding the entire customer lifecycle from front-end to back-end, rather than sitting in technology or digital silos.”

The evolved CTO treats information security as a collective effort

A recent article published by HelpNetSecurity asked tech leaders to disclose their biggest job-related stresses. The fear of breaches weighed heavily on some respondents’ minds, with some saying that the first thing they do in the morning is to check that everything is still running smoothly.

A 2019 survey also found that 56% of chief technology officers and chief information officers suffered from stress-related illnesses or mental distress due to their work. Some respondents even mentioned that they or their family members received threats after adverse events such as network outages or breaches.

Garth Wermter, CTO of Infranet Technologies Group, admitted errors concern him. He clarified: “My biggest worry is human mistakes. We have great procedures that are well-documented, but our people still make mistakes — news articles show the business and financial impact of these errors daily.

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“Our IT and security teams are not imaginative enough to predict and prepare our users for every threat variant.”

Security shortcomings also emerge if companies cling to outdated security methods. Andrew Moreland, former CTO of Beyond M&A and head of infrastructure & architecture at Juriba noted: “The mindset of many in IT is still stuck in the traditional perimeter, with firewalls and client VPNs. Often, their teams are blind to the larger security risks in their organisation as a result.”

What’s the solution? Many CTOs say it’s teamwork. A 2019 study from Code42 revealed that 79% of information security leaders believe that employees are an effective frontline of defence against data breaches. Unfortunately, Code42’s statistics also showed that 69% of organisations suffered breaches carried out by insiders despite having preventive measures in place. Additionally, looking at a more global scale, Barracuda Networks CTO Fleming Shi cited collaboration on the part of governments as key to mitigating ransomware in 2022.

Room for improvement exists, but CTOs should do their best to get every team member on board.

The CTO should know how to optimise technological spending

Besides looking for the next technologies for a company to use, a CTO that succeeds in the modern landscape must have money management skills. Possessing them is particularly important when leading a startup due to the typical financial constraints associated with a newer company.

However, keeping a careful watch on tech-related spending is a crucial part of a CTO’s role, regardless of the age of the company. Gartner predicted that worldwide IT spending will grow by 3.7% in 2020, and 8.6% in 2021. Nevertheless, the potential to invest in new technology doesn’t exist if the company has a perpetually maxed-out or mismanaged budget.

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Whether being wise about expenditures means investigating new cloud providers to find more reasonable rates, or switching to a yearly billed plan for a team file storing tool to save money compared to the monthly subscription, CTOs should remain alert for practical ways to slash spending. Staying involved in keeping costs down gives the chief technology officer more freedom to invest in new technologies at the right time.

What might CTO role-changing look like in a few years?

This overview shows the current state of the CTO’s role, based on recent and ongoing evolutions. Many of the areas discussed here will likely remain prominent for the foreseeable future — such as those related to digitisation and viewing information security as a collaborative effort. It’s anyone’s guess, though, what new features might also define and reshape the CTO’s duties as the years pass.


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Kayla Matthews

Kayla Matthews, is a tech journalist and writer.

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