Information Age’s guide to tech leadership roles

In line with our focus on tech leadership, we provide our guide to the following roles: the CTO; the CIO; the CDO; and the CPO.

Leadership in the ever-evolving tech sector is paramount to the success of organisations. Businesses in nearly every vertical have a tech-focused leadership team that oversees technological operations inside and outside the company. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic rendering innovation more important than ever in maintaining a high standard of customer service and experience, tech leadership positions and duties are often prone to change. With this in mind, we present a guide to the four biggest tech leadership roles: the CTO, CIO, CDO and CPO.

Chief technology officer (CTO)

The CTO oversees the short and long term technological needs of the organisation, with a view to driving value and helping customers using tech. An outward-facing position, the CTO may also lead research and development (R&D), which looks to determine how technological products and services can improve user experience. An outward tech vision is developed by this member of the executive team, in line with business goals, which the whole organisation needs to be brought on board with. More often than not, the CTO is the highest tech leadership role in the company — according to IBM, 67% of CTOs report directly into the C-Suite, while 40% report directly to the CEO.

CTOs lead a team of developers and engineers, which are responsible for building, testing and getting products and services ready for delivery to customers. Taking charge of the generation of new, innovative offerings calls for keeping up-to-date with the latest trends across the industry in which the organisation operates, as well as the tech sector generally.

Overall, what a CTO brings to a tech leadership team can vary, and depends on the company’s vision. This has led to various types of CTO emerging in the tech sector, with four main ones being widely agreed upon in the industry:

  • Big thinker/innovator: Helps to set out corporate strategy, closely working with the CEO, while developing new business models and ideas for driving the business forward. This kind of CTO will also analyse target markets, and looks to stretch boundaries of how tech is used.
  • Consumer liaison/customer champion: Acts as a conduit between the organisation and its customers to ensure excellent user experience, while focusing on client relations, determining the target market, and delivering IT projects.
  • Infrastructure commander/overseer: Oversees the organisation’s data, security, maintenance and network, as well as managing the tech roadmap. This CTO won’t necessarily set out the company’s technical strategy.
  • Visionary/strategic planner: Sets out the organisation’s technical strategy, and focuses on how current and new technologies can help the company achieve its goals.

Related: What is the role of the CTO? – Taking a closer look at what the chief technology officer role entails

Chief information officer (CIO)

The CIO is a more internal-facing position in tech, and focuses on ensuring that the organisation is ready for any new technology deployments and approaches that affect staff. This entails analysis of how various tech will benefit the company, and how it can be improved and better implemented. To help realise maximum value from internal tech infrastructure, the CIO needs to be an equally strong communicator with business leaders, shareholders, and the CTO and its tech teams.

Like the CTO, much evolution of the CIO role has been undertaken over the last few years, which in part has been catalysed by the COVID-19 pandemic. CIOs have become more strategic in the wake of continuous change, in line with cloud migrations and other digital transformation intiatives. This means predicting the future of tech trends to help the organisation gain greater competitive advantage. Since 2019, CIOs reporting advanced capabilities has greatly increased, with hybrid cloud operations and digital process automation and intelligent workflows seeing report surges by 700% and 560%, according to IBM.

With cyber attacks constantly getting more sophisticated, CIOs are also now focusing more on security, as well as data governance, both of which now play major parts in infrastructure analysis, alongside usability. IBM’s 2021 CIO Study: The CIO Revolution revealed that data governance and compliance was one of the top responsibilities for respondents, while cyber security was in the top three time investments.

Related: What is the role of the CIO? – Exploring what being a successful chief information officer involves in the tech sector

Chief data officer (CDO)

The tech leadership role of the CDO holds responsibility for the data at the organisation’s disposal, ensuring that all assets are suitable and compliant in line with organisation goals and regulations. Areas that are overseen by this officer can include data management, analytics and creation of a data strategy. With data being cited as more valuable than oil in today’s digitally driven landscape, the guardian of the company’s data is paramount in ensuring that maximum value can be gained. Once an approach has been established, it’s up to the CDO to clearly communicate this to the board, investors and stakeholders. In addition, keeping all data compliant means keeping up with the latest regulatory changes and adapting strategy accordingly.

The CDO position is relatively new compared to other tech leadership roles, with Capital One being widely recognised as the first organisation globally to establish such a role in 2002. As such, the position strongly varies from company to company, as does the leadership team member responsible for hiring the CDO. Gartner has predicted that by 2023, half (50%) of chief digital officers without a chief data officer peer will also need to take on the latter role in order to succeed.

While many organisations are still yet to implement a CDO role into their tech leadership team, with duties undertaken by the CIO and CTO sometimes overlapping it, the CDO’s ability to identify and prioritise particular assets and streamline the data infrastructure adds efficiency and a clearer picture.

Related: What is the role of the CDO? – Looking at the chief data officer position and what it currently involves

Chief product officer (CPO)

The CPO is responsible for production and release to the customer base at scale, as well as coming with the product direction for the organisation. This would typically include vision, innovation, design, development, project management, and marketing. As all sectors become ever more competitive and customer demands quickly change, creating and rolling out the right product for those needs, through leading the product management team, is vital in maintaining customer trust and innovation. While it didn’t initially emerge as a tech-focused position, the CPO is growing in prominence due to increased digitisation in all industries.

To achieve the goal of establishing a successful product, market research on the part of the CPO is crucial. As with the roles of other tech leaders, this entails keeping up with the latest trends in tech, as well as the needs of the customer base.

The entire supply chain is overseen by the CPO, and as a result, the demands of the customer needs to be balanced with the requirements of the organisation when developing, testing and launching any new product. In addition, this member of the tech leadership team may work closely with the CTO on ensuring that user experience is the best it can be.

Related: What is the role of the CPO? – What the chief product officer position involves in the tech sector

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Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is Information Age's senior reporter, providing news and features around the hottest trends across the tech industry.