What does a CTO do and what skills are required to succeed?

A man giving a presentation in front of a screen showing overlapping windows of python code
(Image credit: Getty Images)

With businesses taking on more new technologies, the role of chief technology officer (CTO) has become almost as important as CEO. Some CTOs even enjoy a sort of celebrity level of fame, like AWS executive Werner Vogels. However, you may be asking, what does a CTO do for a business?

The role is all about leading a company's IT departments and all its technical operations. As such, to be a CTO, you need a relatively diverse set of skills, as well as a tech-focused mindset. Speaking to ITPro, Moonpig CTO Peter Donlon said: "Standing still will never be good enough in IT and that works for me. I always want to learn more."

Part of the job requirement is to predict what types of tech the business might need for the future, both hardware and software. This is also in addition to overseeing the current IT setup and whether it is sufficient enough to help the organisation reach its targets.

To help reach those targets, the CTO will also have to build and maintain an IT team, which will include hiring new members and or training the existing team. This requires extensive knowledge and experience to keep on top of the industry and the relevant training courses.

Digital transformation was on the lips of every organisation long before the pandemic, but it's now one of the most important strategies for future-proofing the business. So it is understandable that CTOs find the work more critical than ever, with higher reach and a greater demand placed on them for success.

What does a CTO do for a business?

According to IBM’s The CTO Revelation report, which polled 2,500 CTOs and 2,500 CIOs, 61% of CTOs saw themselves as the executive that will play the most crucial role, beyond the CEO, over the next three years.

Nearly half of CIOs also identified the CTO as a role of increasing importance in the C-suite – behind the CFO and COO – while four in every ten of 3,000 CEOs recognised  the role of CTO as strategically important.

A CTO is both an executive and a technologist, in that order, and will examine both the long-term and short-term necessities of a business while ensuring they direct capital to intelligent investments that ensure a company can meet all of its goals.

This executive will improve a business’ products and services that focus on external customers by making the most of technology and developing a number of procedures and policies. The CTO will ensure they have clear communications with all customers, internally and externally, to try and comprehend any issues they are facing when it comes to their technology, as well as ensuring they completely understand the technology a business employs. 

They need to also find the right balance between business and technology strategies, absorbing information and breaking it down into simple, important, trends that highlight where an organisation needs to go next.

CTO’s must push for change in all parts of a business, where they see it needed, and also have to motivate people, both internally and externally, to do this. They should also be able to attract top talent, select the best potential candidates and encourage them to be the best they can be and become the new leaders in the future. CTOs can establish surroundings where developers should be able to unite to reach ambitious objectives.

It is becoming more common for CTOs to be one of the central drivers of a business’ digital transformation push, since they have plenty of knowledge of how any new technologies introduced to the organisation will impact employees. They also understand how this technology can help fulfil organisational objectives and modernise processes, and transform workflows within an organisation to become more efficient.

What skills does a CTO need?

The CTO is to a company what a conductor is to an orchestra. They need to ensure that all instruments – in this case, applications, software and services – are in harmony. The CTO’s role is more than just simply selecting and deploying technology to drive innovation, enhance efficiencies and improve performance for customers, though. The CTO needs to be in tune with the wider business goals and has to conduct the digital transformation in a way that helps the company to achieve these goals.

We spoke to four CTOs to get their view on the skills that have helped them, both personally and professionally, and how others might refine these skills in order to be successful in their role.

1. Strong critical thinking

It won’t have escaped your notice that there’s plenty of hype around artificial intelligence right now. Hype is the operative word, because it’s vital that CTOs don’t allow the latest technology trends, no matter the buzz around them, to cloud their decision-making.

“You need to assess if a current trend makes sense for your company and your technology at that moment, rather than rushing to implement it without due diligence. Sometimes not making it to the boat on time is not a bad thing,” says Moreno Carullo, co-founder and CTO at cyber security solution provider Nozomi Networks, adding that this requires “a strong critical sense”.

2. A willingness to learn

While it’s wise not to obsess over the latest trends, new technology is arriving on the scene all the time and CTOs need to keep their finger on the pulse. If they don’t, they could find their strategy being outpaced and they could be forced to play catch-up.

“Technology is no longer the barrier, managing change is. What got you here, won’t get you there” says Tom Bianculli, CTO at mobile computing firm Zebra Technologies, adding that keeping up-to-date with the latest technological developments requires continuous learning and “a willingness to always challenge the status quo”.

Carullo echoes this sentiment. “The most important thing for me, as a CTO, is to be curious, always – and never – stop asking questions. You should always look for ways to grow your knowledge and expand your horizons,” he argues.

3. Effective communication

Through continuous learning and arming themselves with technical knowledge, CTOs can build an effective technology strategy. Yet they also need to be able to communicate the benefits and promise of any technologies to the C-suite – and even the board.

“CTOs sit at the intersection of business, leadership, and technology; communicating business needs to the tech teams or explaining technical requirements to the business side. They need to be comfortable with public speaking and articulating complex technical ideas in an explainable, straightforward manner,” argues Jesse Shanahan, CTO at personal training tech platform Another Round.

4. Know how to advocate

Shanahan adds that a soft skill that isn’t usually mentioned in a CTO job listing, but is essential nonetheless, is the ability to advocate.

“Everyone knows CTOs need technical skills, but the development of technology is a process involving people,” she says.

“Whether you’re evaluating the risks or ethical impact of a particular technology or ensuring a healthy work environment for your technical staff, it is important to be an advocate for responsible technology and for the people who develop it.”

5. The ability to listen and be empathetic

Effective communication and being a strong advocate for change are key to helping CTOs secure buy-in and bring them on the journey.

“You need to remember that your employees and colleagues are your strongest asset,” stresses Carullo. “From my experience, adopting a ‘command and conquer’ approach doesn’t bear fruit. On the other hand, supporting and encouraging your team’s creativity will be reflected positively in business growth.”

It should go without saying that CTOs also need to be good listeners and they have to lead with empathy to ensure all employees are engaged.

6. Knowing how to promote collaboration

Communication and empathy are integral to the success of a team’s growth and making sure that teams are aligned with the company’s vision and direction. What’s more, CTOs need to create an environment that fosters innovation, creativity and collaboration.

As Eve Maler, CTO at digital identity specialist Forgerock, puts it: “Effective technical leadership relies on promoting collaboration and embracing a range of ideas and approaches to achieve common goals. Innovation can originate from unexpected sources.”

Three-quarters of the CTOs surveyed by IBM said that dedicated innovation teams had supported them in gaining the insight and data needed for discovery and accelerating their technology strategy.

7. The ability to lead through diversity

To this end, it’s important that CTOs are open-minded when building their teams. During her time as CTO, Maler has “witnessed the power of diverse perspectives in driving innovation and problem-solving”.

Ultimately, a team that is inclusive is likely to be more inclined to buy into the vision. And before they buy into the vision, workers need to be able to buy into the leader. CTOs shouldn’t forget that the whole team is looking at them and the standards and best practices they set will be followed.

“Leading by example not only encourages and empowers the team, but also builds that trust,” concludes Maler.

How much are CTOs paid?

Considering how complex the job is, you might have guessed by now that taking on the role of a CTO at a successful company will see you net a very high pay. What salary does a CTO make exactly? This depends on a number of factors, including the company’s location, how big it is, and how much experience the CTO has.

CTO’s who are based in London and are more or less new to the job should expect to receive an average total compensation of approximately £89,000 per year, which includes bonuses, tops, and overtime pay, according to compensation software provider PayScale. However, if you’re a CTO with around five to nine years of experience, also known as a mid-career CTO, your earnings will be around £92,000.

It’s worth noting that you can expect a large pay increase as a CTO if you’ve worked in the position for a decade or more. CTO’s might receive an average total compensation of £111,000 if they’ve worked for anywhere between 10 and 19 years. Meanwhile, CTO’s with more than two decades of experience in the position received an average wage of around £124,000.

When it comes to a CTO's base pay, data from the company review website Glassdoor estimates the average at around £93,901 a year. This pay can range anywhere between £46,000 to £193,000 depending on experience.

How the role of CTO changes as businesses grow

From start-up to expanding company, the role of chief technology officer (CTO) can massively change over time. From a position that focuses solely on the technical aspect of a business, the CTO becomes a more strategic role that needs a diverse and multifaceted skillset.

Being able to move at speed one day, and take a holistic approach the next, today's CTOs need to be flexible to ensure emerging technologies are embraced, changing security threats are mitigated, and the tactical direction of their company is sustainable and profitable.

McKinsey's recent report on technology transformation emphatically points to the technical roles in today's companies being central to decision-making.

"For example, 73% of respondents at top-performing companies now say that their most senior tech leaders (the chief information officer or chief technology officer) are highly involved in shaping the company-wide strategy and agenda," the report states.

A profile picture of Aron Brand
Aron Brand

"My role has become a triad of product management, engineering, and marketing"

Aron Brand, CTO of CTERA, explained to ITPro how his role has changed as his company developed. "In the nascent stages of CTERA, my role as the CTO was multifaceted and hands-on, encompassing everything from code reviews and UX design to product management and documentation. I was the go-to problem solver, immersed in the technical details of our small, passionate founding team.”

“As we matured and the company has grown, my role metamorphosed into one of alignment between the triad of product management, engineering, and marketing. An essential part of my evolving responsibilities was to drive the innovation process and articulate our technological vision through compelling technical storytelling.”

"So, to my fellow CTOs, never lose sight of the hands-on experiences that shaped your love for technology; they can continue to inspire and fuel your leadership, even as your responsibilities evolve and grow.”

Aron Brand - CTO of CTERA

"However, even as the company scaled, I never lost my desire to engage with code. As CTERA further matured and strong technical leaders emerged, I found more freedom to return to some hands-on developments. Recently, I've been able to contribute directly to some exciting new projects, which has been incredibly fulfilling. Though my responsibilities have shifted over time, my passion for building great things endures."

Brand adds that during periods of rapid expansion, a CTO will likely be challenged to craft a compelling narrative that connects technology investments with company goals.

“This involves taking complex, often technical ideas and translating them into a story that resonates with various departments. It's not just about explaining the technology; it's about articulating how it fits into the company's vision and solves real-world problems."

“In essence, the role of a CTO becomes that of the chief technical storyteller," adds Brand. "By employing storytelling techniques, a CTO can align various aspects of the organization under a shared vision, ensuring that technology is used in the right way.

"The challenge, then, is not merely to lead on technological fronts but to weave technology into the very fabric of the company's identity. In doing so, a CTO helps shape the company's strategy, making technology relatable and valuable to all stakeholders.”

CTOs have always been pivotal in the development of their companies. Today, their roles are certainly more diverse and critical as advanced technologies emerge and impact their marketplaces.

CTOs in startups will, of course, have a significant impact on the technical infrastructure of their businesses. As these enterprises grow, however, the role does tend to become more about operational responsibilities, and with larger enterprises, strategy and innovation begin to dominate most of a CTO's time, rather than day-to-day systems management.

Indeed, several years ago, the Harvard Business Review dubbed the new age of CTOs as Chief Transformation Officers or Chief Innovation Officers, to define how their roles have changed and their immense impact on their business's development.

A profile picture of Don Schuerman
Don Schuerman

"Chief Translation Officer'"

Don Schuerman, CTO of Pegasystems, agrees that a title change might be appropriate: “I often describe my role as 'Chief Translation Officer'".

"It's my team's job to make sure we are translating the power and value of technology – both our technology and emerging tech like generative AI – to our clients, partners, and employees. We also ensure that our client's needs and priorities are well understood and translated into our product strategy and roadmap.

"As the company grows, and as not every employee or every client is directly connected to our product engineering teams, this translation role becomes increasingly vital.”

"Most of my team is focused on leading the team and connecting the strategy but having that hands-on familiarity with the tech is essential to putting together the big picture.”

Don Schuerman, CTO at Pegasystems

However, even in the face of massive change, as a CTO, he still wants to get his hands dirty.

"I try to keep a few hours free each week to keep my hands in the tech, whether it’s making sure I can use and demonstrate our own products effectively or playing with new APIs or AI services that are emerging in the marketplace.

A profile picture of Kyle Spearrin
Kyle Spearrin

“During periods of rapid expansion, CTOs need to help the company remain true to its vision, mission, and foundational product deliverables," explains Kyle Spearrin, Founder and CTO of Bitwarden.

"As the team grows, different inputs emerge across the organization all the way from sales to engineering. Balancing these inputs in open forums allows everyone to see the big picture and drive alignment between teams. CTOs need to drive their companies but also serve.

"At different stages of growth those balances may shift. It is important to remain attentive and flexible to the needs of the organization.”

Rich McEachran

Rich is a freelance journalist writing about business and technology for national, B2B and trade publications. While his specialist areas are digital transformation and leadership and workplace issues, he’s also covered everything from how AI can be used to manage inventory levels during stock shortages to how digital twins can transform healthcare. You can follow Rich on LinkedIn.

With contributions from