How to become a CTO (Chief Technology Officer)

Arif Harbott
Arif Harbott

In this article, I will outline the most common paths to become a CTO.

It’s important to know that there are many paths to becoming a Chief Technology Officer (CTO), but some paths are more well-established than others.

Chief Technology Officer (CTO)

What is a CTO and what is their role?

A Chief Technology Officer is the executive responsible for managing technology within an organisation. If you want to learn more about the CTO role, what skills they need, and how they work with other technology leadership roles, I have a detailed article titled, “The Ultimate Guide to the Chief Technology Officer”.

What are the CTO’s key responsibilities?

Before we can understand the best way to become a Chief Technology Officer, we need to understand what are the core parts of their role.

There is a lot more information in my guide here, but here is a quick summary of the CTO’s most important responsibilities.

The CTO role can differ from company to company, but it usually includes everything from technology vision and strategy to architecture, innovation, software development and infrastructure.

CTOs need to understand broad technology trends and they also need to have the business knowledge necessary to align technology-related decisions with the organisation’s results and objectives.

What is constant is that the CTO role is usually where the technology vision and strategy is developed that is critical to developing or enhancing a company’s products or services.

CTOs key responsibilities
  1. Technology Leadership – developing a compelling technology vision, strategy and organisation design
  2. Technology Governance – building a roadmap and managing the governance and resources for the portfolio
  3. Innovation and R&D – evangelising on technology trends and business model innovation
  4. Product Development – building world-class software products and services for customers
  5. Business IT – digitising core business operations and running core business systems and infrastructure

CTO Experience and CTO Career Path

The CTO position is very broad, and as such, there is not a tried and tested career path. That being said, there are some trends that many of the top CTOs in the world have followed.

So you might be asking yourself, if I want to become a CTO in the long-term, what is the best way to do so?

Many CTOs have the following roles in their career experience:

  • Software Engineer
  • Architect
  • Data Engineer
  • Project Manager

It takes a long time to become a CTO, and you need to have held some leadership positions after you have held some technical roles. Much of the role of the CTO is not about coding; it is more focused on strategy, governance, leadership, evangelism and influencing.

Some skills and education that would be very helpful to pick up along your career path include:

Technological awareness. CTOs need to be aware of both emerging and existing technologies. Staying on top of technology trends and working out which will generate the most business value is a key skill.

Technical skills. Having a strong knowledge of software development, architecture, design, and programming is important. These fundamentals are present in almost all of the high profile CTOs we analysed.

Business knowledge. Using technology to achieve business objectives is the key to becoming a successful CTO. It will also help you with budgets and finance, which form a big part of the CTO role.

Product management knowledge. The CTO is focused on building products and services for customers. They also work with the Chief Product Owner to build products that customers love and are profitable. This makes up a large part of the job.

Team management/ leadership. Building, growing and developing a world-class engineering and technical team is where CTOs can add a lot of value. No one can achieve results by themselves without the help of others.

Education and Career Experience of the top CTOs in the world
Education and Career Experience of some of the highest profile CTOs in the world

Does a Chief Technology Officer need a technical background?

My personal view is that a CTO needs a technical background in order to have a grounding in the fundamentals of technology. That does not mean that you need to have been a developer. Your experience could be in any technical role, such as:

  • Technical project manager
  • Infrastructure engineer
  • Technical business analyst
  • UX / UI designer

From my personal experience, it makes it a lot easier to build credibility quickly if you have had a technical role. I started my career as a developer and then moved onto architecture. This allowed me to get right into the details and ask a lot of specific questions to technical teams. It also means that you will have a much stronger opinion over project timelines and approaches if you know the underlying technical concepts.

CTO Education

Bachelor’s degree: Many of the world’s top CTOs have a bachelor’s degree in computer science or engineering. This seems to be the most common way of entering the technology world and starting on your path towards becoming a Chief Technology Officer.

Advanced degree: Again, many of the top CTOs have a master’s or PhD in computer science. This would be a great addition to your education if you did not want to go into the workplace after your undergraduate degree.

MBA: Many organisations may require an advanced degree such as an MBA, as the role involves a great deal of complex financial, business and management skills.

Does a CTO need an MBA?

While it is not a prerequisite to have an MBA, having one can make a big difference, especially if you come from a very technical background. Being a CTO is very much about being a business leader who is an expert at technology. If you cannot convert technology to business value, then it is unlikely that you will succeed.

An MBA will give you very broad education across the full range of business areas, e.g. finance, marketing, operations, HR, etc. I personally found that my MBA gave me an excellent springboard to move from technical startup co-founder to senior CTO in large publicly-listed companies.

After spending some time working in the technology field, IT professionals with the ultimate goal of becoming a CTO should consider pursuing a master’s degree. A CTO needs to have the technological expertise and a keen business sense to be successful in a leadership role. A master’s program that focuses on the technical area of business administration, such as an online cybersecurity master’s, can help students develop skills in management-related areas, such as accounting and finance.

How much do CTOs earn?

If you decide to put in all the years of experience into becoming a CTO then it is important to know that that effort will pay off.

According to PayScale, the average base salary for a CTO is $162K. However, this can be a lot higher with bonuses and stock options. The overall trend for CTO salary has been increasing over the last 10 years as technology becomes more and more important for competitive advantage.

There is obviously a large range in these numbers, and factors such as geography, experience, and company size all play an important role in determining the salary.

The highest-paid CTOs can earn significantly more than the salary average. Tim Theriault, EVP and Global CIO of Walgreens Boots, earned as much as $13M in 2018.

Speaking personally, money is just one part of the motivation to become a CTO. There is so much change, disruption and excitement around technology, that being a CTO demands that you are at the forefront of understanding trends and working out how these can drive company value.

Technology is so important for most companies that being the technology leader in a company puts you in a very privileged and influential position.

What is the best way to become a CTO?

As we have seen, there is no single way to become a CTO. However, there are some patterns:

  1. Undergraduate or advanced degree in computer science or engineering
  2. Starting off your career in a technical role
  3. Getting an MBA to round out business knowledge
  4. Moving into technology leadership roles
  5. Keeping on top of technology trends and how these create business value
  6. Learning how to grow and develop a team
  7. Building your strategic and governance skills for when you become a senior executive

It will take a long time to become a CTO (in a large company) so you need to be patient and be in it for the long-term.

My personal view is that this is made a lot easier if you have a genuine love of technology and how to use technology in businesses. I love reading about technology, debating its application with colleagues, and then thinking about it in my quiet reflective periods. Some might say I am obsessed with technology! I would say I was passionate and interested in it!

Anyone with a deep passion for technology combined with curiosity, drive and commitment can make it all the way to the top of the technology ladder. If you follow these steps, you will be on the path to become a CTO.

How to become a CTO (Chief Technology Officer)
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