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Archive for August 4th, 2018

As someone in the technology sector, on a fairly constant basis I get asked the grown-up equivalent of “what do you want to be when you grow up.” This is, of course, “where do you see yourself in N years.”

Now, most of the time, this is a question with all the gravity of “nice day, isn’t it?” Sometime, however, the inquiry is sincere. And my answer is provided with the same weight as the question.

And, for reference, my answer hasn’t changed all that much since I was about seven. Happily, the way that I answer has become a bit more sophisticated. My end game position is that of CTO (Chief Technology Officer).

Many of my contemporaries have gone the route of management. This is cool with me. You shouldn’t be doing engineering and science if you don’t have it in you. By in you, I intend the sense given by The Oracle in The Matrix when she told Neo that you know that you’re the one when you feel it “balls to bones.” Seriously. There are far easier ways to make a decent living than the constant demands and uncertainty that comes along with the endeavor of technological advancement. Hell, forget advancement, just using technology is a hard slog.

For me, working with technology and constantly expanding the reach of my understanding within that sphere is one of my core drives.

So like anything else I’ve ever set as a goal, I researched this thing I’ve set my sights on.

Let’s unwrap what I understand today.

It’s relative new

As C-suite positions go, the CTO is really young. Only the CISO (Chief Information Security Officer) position is newer. As you’d imagine it’s not like there weren’t technology companies before CTO roamed the Earth. Prior to recognizing that the technology landscape was changing so quickly and on such a continual basis that a board-level position focusing exclusively on the implications of such change, technology was the domain of either the CIO (Chief Information Officer) or CEO (Chief Executive Officer).

There was a realization that technology falls into two broad categories: present and future. You can think of these as tactical (product development) and strategic (futures research). Investopedia says that a CTO “examines the short and long term needs of an organization, and utilizes capital to make investments designed to help the organization reach its objectives … [the CTO] is the highest technology executive position within a company and leads the technology or engineering department.”

This division of labor is not unlike the was that Computer Science became an independent discipline. It too is dual-rooted. There were schools where the computer (singular) was managed by the Math department and those managed by the Electrical Engineering department. You can tell the difference in the focus in curriculum. It will be either theoretical (math) or applied (engineering) in nature.

It’s not only one

The position of CTO is in no way one-size-fits-all. Presently, it’s possible to identify four distinct sub-species of CTO. This diversity reflects the nature of the companies and how technology fits into their culture and mission.

We can identify these four by where the fall on the spectrum described by amount of business change and percentage of products and services based on information.

 

CTO quadrants

As can be seen, these are four very different animals. This is why you would expect the CTO from a relatively stable business in the manufacturing sector like GE (big thinker) to be very different from one at a business experiencing near constant change and highly-dependent on information in its products like Facebook (visionary). Neither of those would look anything like the stable business, high-dependency Apple (external-facing) or high change, low-dependency AT&T (information manager).

The Infrastructure Manager

CTO quadrant - infrastructure manager

 

Typically seen in companies with low dependency on information-related technologies, but with business models experiencing large amount of change (technology change impacting how the business is run), the Infrastructure Manager CTO reports to the CIO and is responsible for addressing how to build out and leverage technology to reduce cost and encourage technology adoption across business units in order to gain efficiencies.

The Big Thinker

 

CTO quadrants - big thinker

The Big Thinker CTO is the response to never-ending growth of things utilizing information technology. We see this type in companies with stable business models and a relatively low dependence on information as a part of their products. We see their focus on strategic initiatives such as:

  • Advanced technology
  • Competitive analysis
  • Technology assessment
  • Prototyping
  • Planning
  • Setting architectural standards
  • These CTO answer to the CEO and peer the CIO. Here we have a division of the IT and engineering departments. They act as change agents, typically having a relatively small elite staff. They are influencers rather than controllers.

The Visionary and Operations Manager

 

CTO quadrant - visionary

In companies in the throws of business change (increased technology complexity) and highly dependent upon information in their products and services, the CTO will be the Visionary and Operations Manager type. Answering to the CEO, this is the prime mover of the company. Their responsibilities are all encompassing. They drive business strategies and exploit new technologies and then implement those same technologies throughout the business and product groups. We see the CIO reporting to the CTO in this view of the world.

The External-facing Technologist

 

CTO quadrant - external technologist

Information-driven companies with stable business models will tend to have the External-facing Technologist CTO. As with the Big Thinker type, this CTO peers the CIO with both answering to the CEO. Here the focus in on the identifying new technologies, exploiting them, and evangelizing them both in and outside the organization.

Areas of Impact

If we visualize the areas of impact for the four type, we can see the natural focus areas for each.

infrastructure managerbig thinkervisionaryexternal technologist

Observations

Greg Brockman, Stripe’s CTO, said that other CTO’s “viewed themselves as the facilitators of the technology organization. Sometimes this was about connecting senior engineers. Sometimes it was mentoring. … I realized the most important thing to do was to empower our engineers to make big changes and improvements.”

“It’s not a simple job to understand all the technology out there,” says Unisys Corp’s global CTO Fred Dillman. “Today the pace of change is so much faster, and businesses are becoming more and more dependent on technology. So the CTO is being asked to be the real expert in technology and understanding what technologies will affect the business in the future and help determine when and where to invest.”

My fit

So, where do I see myself in all this? Tricky question.

Honestly, it varies. As the Version Control Systems Architect at Metrowerks, I was evangelizing source code control. At The Altamira Group, I rocked the visionary thing. Most of my CTO-esque activities have fallen into the Big Thinker bucket. Researching futures and educating engineers and management is where I spend the bulk of my time.

Roger Smith noted that “[t]he significant role of technology in strategic business decisions has created the need for executives who understand technology and recognize profitable applications to products, services and processes. many companies have addressed this need through the appointment of a chief technology officer (CTO) whose responsibilities include:

  • monitoring new technologies and assessing their potential to become new products and services
  • overseeing the selection of research projects to ensure that they have the potential to add value to the company
  • providing reliable technical assessments of potential mergers and acquisitions
  • explaining company products and future plans to the trade media
  • participating in government, academic and industry groups where there are opportunities to promote the company’s reputation and to capture valuable data

Integrating these technology-based activities into the corporate strategy requires that the CTO nurture effective relationships with key people throughout the company. These include the CEO, members of the executive committee, chief scientists, research laboratory directors, and marketing leaders.”

Regardless of the specific needs of the organization, I’ll continue to strive to provide the best information in a timely fashion to those who need it.

References

 

 

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