What does a CTO do?
April 26, 2022
by Lance

The CTO is the Chief Technology Officer. What does a CTO do in a high-tech company? It is the most ill-defined of the CxO jobs. The trick is figuring out what activities can make a difference and which are merely motions. When I briefly took the job I promised myself that I would spend at least 60% of my time facing out. I hadn’t been able to quite do that, but I have a belief that one of a company’s mundane dangers is not looking outside enough and, if I wanted that to change, I had to walk the talk. We all have more things we don’t know about than things we do. I think there is a hierarchy of troubles, from bad to worse:

What the CTO doesn’t know

What we don’t know.
What we don’t know we don’t know.
What we know that isn’t so. [To quote Josh Billings]

The last of these is the most pernicious. There lots of things we all “know” that aren’t actually true. Indeed, I believe that most of our limitations in business are not in the physical world, but rather in our own heads.

What is the CTO’s job?

So what is the CTO job? First it is to ensure that the company has the best technology. A high-tech company lives in a dynamically evolving space. There are lots of jobs in the company (indeed, hopefully all of them) that that impact competitiveness, but technology-related activities have one of the greater levers on how the company does in the marketplace. The company and network of suppliers and allies need to have the best technology for solving the customers’ problems. The best description of this was given to me by my friend Greg Papadopolous who was on the faculty at MIT with me many years ago and became CTO of Sun Microsystems. He said, “Think it through by analogy. The CFO is not responsible for making revenue every quarter, but if there is a big surprise, fire him. The CTO is not responsible for delivering products every quarter, but if you miss the Internet or a similar technical inflection point, fire him.” Indeed, I have often thought that asking what you should get fired for in a job is a great way to clarify your thinking about what is really important. Sometimes we spend a lot of time working on the wrong problems. Part of making sure one has the best technology involves reviewing programs and challenging teams. The greatest leverage is when the project is in its earliest phases, when we are deciding on architectures in the context of market requirements and when technology choices are being made. This is where you should see the CTO. Once there is a large marching army of engineers heading off in some direction and spending vast resources, it is pretty difficult and expensive to make changes. (For how to manage that see, for instance, Queuing theory and product development or take some time to investigate resource management tools.) Much better to get things sorted out early. It is what I call, “Get ‘em while they’re young.”

The CTO must create options

A second job of the office of the CTO is to create options for the Corporation. These can be options for existing businesses or options for new businesses. Let’s take two examples from Apple Computer. Several years ago someone at Apple created the option for OS-X to run on the x86 architecture (supplied by Intel and AMD). If the PowerPC teams had done their job completely, Apple would never have needed to switch. They didn’t, and Steve Jobs had an important option that he was able to exercise. This is an example of creating an option for an existing business. Apple also created the iPod, an option for a new business. Most companies need to create both types of options. More and more I believe that the CTO office needs to not only create options, but incubate (in partnership with Business Development and others) businesses that exploit technical breakthroughs. When I talk with other CTO’s around the country, this is the thinking that is becoming more and more common. New businesses are fragile. The CTO ends up be one of the chief stewards of innovation. To further this vector, many companies have business development report to the CTO.

Third, the CTO needs to attend to the health and well-being of the technical community. This cannot be taken for granted.

The CTO is also a public face of technology for the company. For a high-tech company, part of the brand is its technical prowess and insight. The CTO needs to represent this in numerous forums and conferences.

The higher one progresses in an organization, the more one should be looking across multiple components.  As the highest technologist in an organization, the CTO should be looking and optimizing across the whole organization.  Because of this, a key job of the CTO is matchmaking and cross-divisional synergy fertilization.  Falling into this same category is achieving alignment of the greater technical organization and, when necessary, arbitrating techno-centric turf scraps, hiring conflicts, and so forth.

Since, as we already mentioned, technology prowess does not stop at the walls of the corporation, interfacing and matchmaking with the larger community, especially (international) academia.  Academia is, after all, the fount of future employees.

As long as we are on the topic of academia, it is worth pointing out that that one of the jobs of the CTO or research director is to make the judgment call as to what research is appropriable by the corporation and which are “public goods.”  Obviously the shareholders of the corporation prefer that the preponderance of the company’s research be appropriable by the corporation.  As we discuss in our essays on strategy, it is as important to decide what not to do as what to do.  This is one of the seldom-stated motivations behind the trend in “open research.”

Strategy and the CTO

The last job of the CTO that I want to mention is strategic thinking. I passionately believe that this is a year-round activity. For companies that compete first and foremost by technical excellence, clearly the CTO needs to have a voice in the company strategy.

Finally, I am sometimes asked how one can tell if a CTO has power in the organization? That’s easy. If when a technical question arises in the course of a business discussion the CEO swivels her chair around to look at the CTO for advice, that CTO has power. If not, not.