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The long road to becoming a CTO
A Chief Technology Officer, or CTO, is a C-level position found within the third layer of a complete organizational chart. Following the President and CEO, a CTO is at the same level as other C-level managers such as the CIO (Chief Information Officer), CSO (Chief Security Officer) and CFO (Chief Financial Officer). There are other C-level positions of course, but they are not relevant to the focus of this article, so won’t be discussed here.
Not all C-level executives are created equal. Some report directly to the CEO while others don’t. In a large organization, the CTO may not be in direct contact with higher-ranked executives, unlike the CIO and CFO. Consequently, the latter positions normally receive a higher salary than a CTO does.
However, the CTO could jump into the role of CEO position much more easiky than the CIO.
On average, becoming a CTO takes around 24 years from the completion of higher education. According to a recent study by Agil8, this usually means having worked in four different companies for a period of one to five years each, holding a total of eight positions during this time.
CTO skills: what should a CTO be good at?
A CTO needs to be familiar with all relevant technology trends and technological infrastructures, and be ready to deploy them within his or her company. Extensive knowledge, a fine-grained sensitivity to the human aspects of all process deployments, and deep understanding of business considerations are also essential.
The requisite knowledge base is developed via a thorough education and long experience. As a result, a CTO is never taken by surprise by a disruption in an area directly related to the company’s core business.
This is why a CTO is more likely to become a CEO than other C-level executives, as previously mentioned. Many variables are involved in leading a CTO to eventually becoming a CEO, including being in the right place at the right moment.
This is just to clarify that not every CTO should expect their career to culminate in a CEO position, but if this is something you are aiming for in the long term, you should start by focusing on three very important aspects: building your work experience, updating top pro CTO skills, and a solid educational background.
Forging your path to becoming a CTO
A traditional career path may lead you to a CTO role over a long period of time, but this is not a bad thing. During that time, you’ll be able to explore, experiment and learn – over and over again, in different areas and with different people. The cumulative value of these experiences will make you a better CTO, without a doubt.
Nonetheless, many people nowadays take the shortest path to taking on the role of CTO. For instance, you could become a CTO more quickly if you work for small companies. It is becoming increasingly common for small firms and start-ups to allow developers to learn their job as a CTO as they go, through a mixture of field experience and access to professional courses.
For this reason, it is becoming increasingly common to see CTOs in their 30s rather than in their 40s, as used to be standard.
Some people are born with a natural self-confidence, the ability to cope with pressure and stress, and a flair for human relationships and team management. Others develop these skills through experience. In the end, it’s really up to you to choose the path that suits you best.
There are no fixed rules; nevertheless, we can agree on three basic pathways to building your work experience in order to become a CTO. You can start as the CTO of SMB (small and medium businesses), acquire a lot of different industry experience, or develop a strategic professional network.
Becoming CTO of a start-up or small company
If you already work for a small company, let your team know that you feel ready to work as CTO. If you’re not already in this area, let start-ups know about your skills and experience by leveraging online networking opportunities. Start with personalizing your LinkedIn profile, indicating your career goals together with your current experience.
Within LinkedIn, reach out to start-up founders and try to get in touch with professionals in other fields. A good starting point for this is to join LinkedIn groups and companies dedicated to start-ups. You never know – you may even find your next employer or your own start-up partner.
Facebook too can be of some use as there are many SaaS and start-up Groups available to join. Keep an eye on ProductHunt too, as a valuable source of information and recruiting opportunities.
Be prepared for one downside if you choose the fast track; you will have to deal with high levels of responsibility, strategic decision-making and simultaneously juggling numerous other tasks immediately.
The overall experience can be a career landmark: some can cope and use this experience to learn fast and progress their career. Others sink under the pressure and may even give up on their aspirations to become a CTO, thinking they are not fitfor the post. Usually, it’s simply that they were not ready for this role just yet.
CTO Skills: great experience means a long time in big companies
The article posted by Agilent in 2017 is based on the careers of 8 CTOs of some of the world’s most important ICT firms. The results of their study were not representative of a pattern for success, but rather of what CTO candidates should have done and accomplished before taking on the role.
Six of the CTOs analysed had worked for more than three companies and had held between four and seven roles before reaching their CTO positions. Seven were aged 39-47 when they took the position, only one was younger (27).
The need for more experience is understandable: CTOs not only need a deep understanding of technology, but also have to be familiar with different areas of business such as marketing, sales, and finance.
Also, considering that each company has its own way of doing things, having worked for several firms results in a wider and more solid experience base, as well as in being more adaptable to changes in market conditions.
As a result, experienced professionals who become CTOs are generally both more visionary and more pragmatic at the same time.
Develop a professional network to build trust
Many small firms still don’t understand the importance of being part of global communities as a way to build their knowledge base and business network. Being part of a global community is a must for any would-be CTO from the early stages of their career onwards (ideally, you should start while still a student).
Listening to many professionals from different fields and places helps when it comes to pioneering the best technologies. At the same time, being part of a team or community can be your best business card when you want to promote yourself.
Don’t stop there, though; what you really need is trust. Use forums and communities to share knowledge and help others, leveraging your CTO skills and knowledge to be seen as a prominent member of your network. Don’t neglect work on your own projects – give presentations and share your ideas.
On top of this, it is a good practice to have a list of national and international conferences and industry-specific workshops. Carefully choose those you think might give you the most in terms of knowledge and network acquisition, then buy your tickets!
Leadership is key, but what is the key to leadership?
Every CTO should be a team leader. This is a natural attitude for some people, but also a skill set that can be improved over time with experience or study. A CTO must also be a tech master in order to be credible in their team’s eyes – a status that can be obtained and maintained only with constant study throughout your working life.
We can sum up the top requirements for a leader of this kind: being able to communicate clearly at all levels, lead one or more teams effectively, and be a point of reference on technology for their specific teams and the company as a whole.
Soft skills can be characterised as the interpersonal qualities that allow you to interact confidently and well with your team under all circumstances, inevitably including high pressure situations. A typical shortlist of the soft skills that you might want to develop or improve should include: communication, leadership, teamwork, problem solving, conflict management, and time management.
The list goes on – this is just a starting point.
Hard skills should include familiarity with most high-end technologies, the most popular frameworks and languages, as well as product development in artificial intelligence, IoT, and security. Most importantly though, a CTO must be able to integrate, or ideally anticipate, new technologies.
Finally, although not all companies require a CTO to do so, contributing to the growth of the tech team and/or creating an R&D department to asses new technologies is something that you should be capable of doing at some point on your professional path.
Solid educational background
An academic background can be the key to a bright and long-lasting career as a CTO. Not many years ago it was the only option available.
Typically, an aspiring CTO should have a bachelor’s degree in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) subject, a master’s degree in a subject outside technology (usually business), and a number of relevant and specific certifications.
STEM degree – the first step
The foundation of every good CTO is usually a bachelor’s degree in a STEM subject. In some countries, computer software and hardware are hidden inside a more comprehensive technology category. Interesting fringe specialities, such as telecoms or biotechnology, are relatively common today.
The University or Institute that you attend, and its reputation, are also relevant, especially in the first five years of your career.
A master’s degree is not strictly necessary to become a CTO – experience is more important – but it helps a lot. Some combine study with working, shortening the path to glory – if you can manage working and studying at the same time, of course.
The most obvious choice of degree is an MBA (Master of Business Administration) – as a CTO you will be required to manage all aspects of business.
Having a good understanding of the legal and regulatory structure of the nation you are based in, or even a grasp of international law, can be very useful too in some cases. Some aspiring CTOs choose a master’s degree in law to complement their STEM degree.
It is less commont for an aspiring CTO to do a Master’s degree in a STEM or STEM-related field, but it could still be a logical choice if your goal is to work at cutting edge tech companies, where very specific and deep knowledge is essential.
Updated technical certificates
Technology changes much faster that we sometimes expect, so it can be really hard to keep the pace and stay up to date.
Unfortunately there’s no easy solution for this – no trick or alternative: you must study, study and then study some more, throughout your life.
The biggest challenge is that now, much more than in the past, every developer must stay up to date on the technologies and languages they have used since their University years, while at the same time constantly learning a wide range of new things.
Training and courses are indispensable to developers, although companies may not look at these in any detail when assessing you as a candidate. Keep attending such courses, but don’t expect them to magically make your path to the top much easier.
Who does the CTO speak to within a company?
The soft skills mentioned above will be of great value within the teams a CTO manages. Typically, the CTO supervises four teams: UX, backend, DevOps, and QA.
The User Experience team is an essential part of almost any start-up. Responsible for creating the best possible experience for users through smart design and front-end development, it also cooperates with other teams to achieve set goals.
The backend team is the most important team in a technology company, whereas the DevOps team is yet to find its natural positioning within an IT company structure.
The quality assurance team is responsible for testing the application being built to ensure the absence of any bugs or errors, maintaining stable and efficient performance, and editing documentation.
Tactical CTO Vs Strategic CTO
There is frequently a difference between the tasks a CTO is required to perform in a small company and in a large one: typically, tactical tasks are preferred by small companies whereas larger ones demand more strategic operations.
In a small company, as a CTO you are more likely to be asked to embrace your job as a mission. You are the tech leader and have a tactical role: your development teams, peers and senior managers will expect clear and effective decisions from you – decisions that can make the difference between failure and success.
Your role if you have a very strong STEM base.
If you work for a large company, you will be assigned several tasks, but your main objective will be the business itself. You will be required to use your CTO skills and knowledge to contribute to your company’s wider goals.
360° vision will be indispensable in this role, as you will be required to make strategic decisions. In this case, a STEM-only education is not necessary, and may actually be a limitation.