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Career Advice, Insights, Leadership

CIO vs. CTO – What’s The Difference?


I often find myself in discussions with recruiters, business owners, even other IT managers who are confused about the difference between a Chief Information Officer (CIO) and a Chief Technical Officer (CTO). This is really an observation more so than a stated fact but it is somewhat disconcerting to think that companies are hiring executive level positions without knowing whom they are actually hiring or why. And, if people in these positions are not clear on the distinction of these roles than I would hardly expect that a new CEO or a corporation’s board members are either. So I thought that I would take this opportunity to explain the key differences between a CIO and a CTO – in the hopes that perhaps it will help influence the decision of someone in IT leadership, or lend itself to those of you trying choose a career path within IT.

Division of responsibilities between a CTO and a CIO.

Photo Credit: The Roles of CIOs and CTOs by Andy Gravatt

Similarities

Both roles do indeed have some overlap and much of this is up to the company hiring and what makes sense (which is also the reason you will rarely find both positions in a small company). The following qualities are pertinent in both roles:

  • Strong leadership and a business-oriented mindset.
  • A technical background and clear understanding of the underlying technologies.
  • Good operational and managerial skills.
  • Effective communication – both technically, and non-technically with the ability to translate between the two.

If only one position is present within a company then it should be backed by a strong manager to complement the role with a skill set that accounts for any perceived weaknesses or deficiencies in the current role. For example, a CIO might have an excellent grasp of the Project Management Office (PMO) and agile methodologies involved in the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) yet lack the technical knowledge of the physical infrastructure or an understanding of the actual software architecture. Conversely, a CTO might be very knowledgeable about what stack you are using, your production technologies, or what technology the company will need to acquire within the next three years but he might not have as firm a grasp on the Change Management process or how to streamline internal communication.

The Chief Information Officer (CIO)

The CIO is internally faced and focused on the company’s bottom line – how to improve internal communication, PMO management, and process control. The CIO is generally focused on improving the efficiency of internal processes in order to guarantee effective communication, maximize productivity, and keep the organization running efficiently. This is an operations role and since it is internally facing the CIO is typically responsible for Infrastructure, Service Delivery, PMO, etc.

The Chief Technical Officer (CTO)

The CTO is really a customer facing role (surprised?) and is focused on the company’s top line. The CTO ensures that the company is implementing technologies that enhance product development. The CTO is generally responsible for the engineering team and employing a technical strategy to improve the end product (thus customer facing). This is a strategic role and the CTO is responsible for leveraging new technologies to enhance the product (which can include infrastructure as well but only as it relates to the product and not the internal IT operations).

Conclusion

Small companies will not rationalize a need for both roles. Given that these are “C” level positions the cost to employ both roles is not exactly cheap. In that scenario a company should consider it’s primary goal. A new and well-backed start-up might be more interested in developing a technology strategy more so than improving efficiency while a growing mid-size company with a sound technological strategy already in place might be more focused on increasing efficiency to maximize its return. That said once a company begins to mature (a couple hundred employees) both roles are necessary – and more so if that company is attempting to leverage technology as part of its core business (in which case the CTO might also be more important up front). The fact is, for a small company, either position likely has enough insight to fulfill both roles in the short term but should be complemented with a strong manager in the opposing role.

The key difference to remember is that a CIO (operations oriented) is internally facing, focused on information systems (communication workflow), with a target to increase efficiency thereby improving the bottom-line while a CTO (technology strategy oriented) is customer facing, focused on a technology strategy, with a target to improve the end product.

As a company grows and new divisions and roles are defined the responsibilities of these roles will tend to mesh together and become a little blurry. So, when defining roles and responsibilities within your IT organization, ask yourself one thing – is this role/division necessary to support operations or are they part of the technology strategy to support product development? This is why a CIO is typically responsible for Infrastructure, Service Delivery, and PMO while a CTO is typically responsible for Product Development, Web Development (which is your engineering team engaged in Product Development), and Vendor Management.

Additional Reading

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About christopherjcoleman

Independent IT Consultant. Cloud Expert. United States Navy Veteran. Dedicated. Focused. Driven. I make companies better by developing applications to meet specific business needs on reliable, cost-efficient cloud infrastructure. If the right solution doesn't exist then create it. I have achieved my greatest accomplishments because someone else told me "it's not possible; there is no way to do it" - and now there is.

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