The title issue: CTO vs CIO, and why it’s the wrong question

CTO has got to be one of the most overloaded (to use a development geek term) titles around. Depending on the industry, the company, and the individual in the position, the Chief Technology Officer may have entirely different responsibilities and purview from other similarly named positions. And what in heaven’s name is a CIO anymore? In many companies, the CTO title seems to have supplanted what ten or twenty years ago would have been referred to as the CIO, which sadly tends to spoil the old joke that CIO stood for “Career Is Over.”

As an article in ComputerWorld pointed out, “ask what a CTO does, and you’re likely to get a variety of responses. In some companies, the CTO heads research and development. In other companies, the CTO is just like a CIO. In still others, the CIO reports to the CTO. And there are also CTOs who work in IT departments and report to the CIO.”

I’m going to reveal my bias here up front: it doesn’t matter, really, what you call the position. The important part is to recognize two conflicting truths: technology is all-important in many leading and bleeding-edge companies today; technology itself, however, cannot be the sole, or even the main, focus and purview of the senior technology executive.

So let’s not focus on the title itself, but concentrate on what it means to be the head technology executive in a given non-start-up company.

A lot of companies, particularly ones that are itching to scale beyond start-up status and into the realm of the mid-sized company (100-500 employees), simply don’t understand how to recruit and hire for this senior technology executive position. They go out and look for a “VP of Engineering” (following what their VCs told them to do back in their early funding days), thinking, kinda sorta, that that person will be a super-coder at the same time he or she will be a senior executive, steering strategy, providing business alignment, and ensuring quality and maintainability and vendor management and all those necessary things.

OK, maybe that’s a bit of a straw man way to present it, but more often than not, that seems to be what I encounter in companies seeking a senior technology executive.

I came up through the software development ranks. I know what it takes to succeed as a coder, and, apart from the obvious necessity of talent and experience, it takes time and concentration above all. 8, 10, 15 hours a day, every day, letting the requisite APIs seep into your skull until they become second nature and ooze out your fingertips almost by themselves. The best coders hate meetings, not just out of dispositional crankiness, but because meetings really do slow their cranial momentum. Read Tom DeMarco’s PeopleWare.

In short, it’s next to impossible (I know of only one case where I’ve seen it happen successfully) to maintain one’s deep involvement in the software nuts and bolts, while also dealing satisfactorily with the mélange of executive and administrative duties required of a CTO, duties that are absolutely essential to ensuring that a company’s technology will scale as the company grows.

Once you’re beyond (at most) 30 people, the mentality of wanting such a super-coder cum executive just doesn’t cut it. High-level project and program management; operational concerns (frankly often just an annoyance to even seasoned developers); ever-increasing negotiation time with internal stakeholders (marketing, sales, support); and the care and feeding of upper management consume a huge percentage of time. The savvy CTO is forced to become a generalist in technology itself, delegating the intensely technical aspects to his or her team. Many simply cannot or will not make the jump, and you see people in this position clinging to low-level development tasks, or given to odd activities such as logging into routers on the side to handle configuration tasks. “I can’t let everyone else have all the fun,” I’ve had people tell me.

Companies that go too long, during their maturation lifecycle, without a senior technology executive at the helm tend to not even suspect what’s happening. After all, software seems to be getting written, product released. Perhaps there aren’t obvious problems. Yet. Later, what inevitably comes to light are chaotic or non-existent contracts, bizarre and untenable operational workarounds, gross overexpenditure or underexpenditure on infrastructure, and (often) near-total lock-in to unscalable technology and practices.

So that’s my summary take on the CTO/CIO title question: it doesn’t matter what you call it, but the “it” had better be a position that concentrates on shepherding technology systems and strategy, from a high level viewpoint, throughout your company.

Does that mean anyone can do the job? No, not at all. Just asking the right questions, anticipating the pitfalls, requires years of having sweltered in the IT trenches, with working code due Friday or an implausibly broken production system at 3 in the morning. What it does mean is that someone who still has working code due on Friday won’t be up to the full job required of this senior executive.

Lagniappe:

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  1. […] now let’s talk about the backlash I’m seeing, and use it to reemphasize my point from the last time I wrote directly about “CTO vs. CIO” on this blog: it’s not the title per se that matters, […]

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