What is the role of the CTO?

More often that not, the CTO position is the highest of the tech leadership roles in the organisation, and oversees all technology that drives value for customers. As demands from users have evolved, particularly at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, so has the CTO role, and this is a trend that is showing no sign of ceasing any time soon. With this in mind, we take a look at what the role of the CTO entails in today’s ever changing tech landscape.

Overseeing tech strategy

A major duty undertaken by the CTO is to plan out and implement a tech strategy for the organisation, for driving maximum value from the capabilities at the company’s disposal. For such a strategy to be successful, the board, leadership team and workforce all need clear, constant communication, and no one can be left behind.

During a recent Women in IT roundtable, featuring a group of CTOs and CIOs, the keys to implementing a scalable tech strategy were discussed, with Bilge Mert, then-CTO at iptiQ by Swiss Re and current CTO of Brit Insurance stating: “We needed to ensure that all business stakeholders were aligned with a common vision. It was about making sure that we have something that brings commercial value, as well as bringing along those senior stakeholders on the board and building those relationships.”

Meanwhile, Sophie Davies-Patrick, CTO of MPB, said: “When I came in as MPB’s first CTO, I took a ‘people, process, technology’ approach to demonstrate how tech can make a difference in business.

“We implemented some basic infrastructure to make the organisation work in a more agile way rather than blocking each other’s progress, and when it came to the funding round, I could easily show the business value that can come with doubling the team and increasing investment.”

Full coverage of the WIT Best in Class CIO/CTO roundtable can be found here.

Constant innovation

To successfully stay in tune with consumer requirements, constant innovation is key. This is where the rapid evolution of the CTO role can be more of a gift than a curse, and ensures that the organisation maintains a competitive edge.

Gary Steen, CTO of Tunstall Healthcare, explained how this can be achieved in the healthcare space, from his experience since being appointed last August: “With demand transforming the current market and technology innovation expanding dramatically, as CTO I need to make sure we’re at the forefront of innovation and development. My role involves strategising for the future, shifting our mission to providing cutting-edge solutions, and driving the direction of Tunstall’s disruptive technology in the health and care space. I also focus heavily on how to deliver changes and innovation from both a people and process perspective.

“Investing time in exploring emerging technology is key to enabling me to successfully set the technical direction of Tunstall’s product and solution development. Currently we’re looking at advanced AI in combination with technology which will support better detection of whether someone’s health could be about to deteriorate. New technology will take data from multiple sources and provide a clear picture of the risks someone faces, enabling us to develop a model of health and care which is proactive and predictive, rather than reactive.”

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A vital part of innovating products and services for clients for a CTO is personalising for individual needs. Everyone engages with tech applications in different ways, so it’s worth tailoring customer service accordingly to retain interest.

“I see my role as being about developing innovative solutions – in line with ForgeRock’s long line of market firsts – to keep exceeding expectations in that shifting and often unpredictable landscape. Moving forwards in 2022, I believe that the most successful CTOs will be looking out for the ‘disruptive scenarios’ that challenge the status quo and preparing novel alternatives,” said Eve Maler, CTO of ForgeRock.

“For me, digital identity is about taking account of individuality, which must include ‘connecting, protecting, and respecting’ – personalising to offer meaningful services, crafting effective and contextually appropriate security boundaries, and giving the user a powerful say in privacy and personal data sharing.

“In my role as CTO at ForgeRock, I use that framework as my guiding principle. Unlike many CTOs, my role is focused less on product engineering and more on the company’s innovation labs and our longer-term vision. My mission is to find new, unexpected, often counterintuitive ways to solve problems.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have a hand in designing several of the standards (including User-Managed Access, or UMA) being used today for giving people a secure and smooth experience for getting into their ‘digital stuff’.”

Managing risk

The CTO role also entails effective management of risks, which are also changing all the time as the organisation innovates. Finding possible risks, and planning how to mitigate them as early as possible is particularly important for any digital transformation initiatives such as cloud migration.

“Migrating applications to the cloud is an area that many CTOs have been leaning into over the last several years. Prioritising flexibility, agility, and productivity has made this a winning strategy in many cases,” said Dave Meltzer, CTO of Tripwire.

“However, it is inevitable that as part of that migration there will be some component misconfigured, a vulnerability uncovered in a new technology, or a human error that introduces an unintended path to access a system. The CTO should understand the possible impacts a breach in a specific application could have to the business as a starting point, and then assess a difficult question – how likely is that risk to be realised?

“As CTO, you must consider all the surrounding process and infrastructure needed to mitigate the security risks of an initiative. Are the assumptions you are making about the capabilities of third party vendors, and your own security organisation, accurate today and in the future? Perhaps the ROI won’t be quite as high if this is fleshed out in detail upfront, but that will be a far better result than being caught flat-footed after a production roll-out.”

Safety engineering: an example in manufacturing

Meltzer identified safety engineering as a particular example from the manufacturing sector, of an area that CTOs can learn from: “The lessons learned from safety engineering, in how to keep life-critical systems safe in the face of component failures, can be applied by CTOs in technology.

“Perhaps a security breach in a new application will not injure a human physically, but if the business impact is significant, you can approach with the same mindset that there will be security vulnerabilities and those are likely to be found and exploited by malicious threat actors. Assume that will happen, and start planning now for how this initiative will still be a success in spite of that.

“If that thinking is part of your approach, you will have a better understanding of risk, make better business decisions, and ultimately be more successful in your role as CTO.”

Overcoming Switch Off 2025

Steen, meanwhile, explained the importance of getting ready for the planned switch off of the Public Switch Telephone Network (PSTN), and how it affects the healthcare sector.

“Globally, the digital transition is impacting how a huge range of health and telecare services and solutions are delivered in group and independent living facilities,” said Steen.

“In the UK, the Public Switch Telephone Network (PSTN) that currently powers landline telephones and provides millions of vulnerable users with assistive technology will cease in 2025. UK phone lines will switch to voice over internet protocol (VoIP) and my role as CTO is crucial to ensure that service providers and end users can withstand and adapt to any changes in technology and solutions this will cause.”

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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.