The importance of the CTO and CIO in today’s companies

Across a wide range of industries, remaining competitive has become almost as contingent on technological wherewithal as on the raw talent of staff. The quick rise and broad expansions of the markets for enterprise tech solutions ranging from cloud platforms to software as a service reflect this. As the importance of technology grew rapidly in the 1990s and beyond, companies realized that they would benefit from dedicated personnel on the executive level overseeing it – hence the creation of the chief technology officer and chief information officer positions.

Organizations that haven't yet installed such positions may not have done so due to confusing one with the other – a common but understandable mistake – or believing the two would be redundant. It's thus critical to examine the differences between the current iterations of these roles and the value both can offer, so businesses know what to look for in the recruiting process.

Origin and evolution of the CTO position

Charles F. Larson of the Industrial Research Institute pointed out, in a 2001 piece for the journal Research-Technology Management, that companies' C-level personnel were often not prepared to directly manage research and development, regardless of their individual talents or fast-growing awareness of tech-based R&D's importance. This observation coincided with what CIO later referred to as the origin period of modern chief technology officers. (The latter publication's opinion of CTOs' value was somewhat skeptical in 2007, but attitudes have changed considerably since then.)

Tech consultant and platform architect Rahul Singh, in a blog post for LinkedIn, identifies the modern CTO as leader of a company's tech engineering staff, directing the use of technology to enhance product and service offerings. CTOs also oversee the nuts-and-bolts implementation and maintenance of technology on a day-to-day basis. This often includes handling relationships with third-party vendors providing the organization with any IT services it cannot create proprietarily for itself. Many CTOs either started out with the business as developers or engineers, or previously worked elsewhere in such roles.

Rise of the CIO

Because CTOs focus so closely on administrating a company's tech functions on a granular level, they may not always have time to consider the bigger picture – for instance, by anticipating future trends and creating multiyear plans for the organization. Those duties are instead often the bailiwick of the chief information officer. As CIO UK noted, it's still important for these executives to possess strong knowledge of IT systems and sometimes get down in the nitty-gritty of tech, but not as much so as when the average enterprise had just one tech executive (who was more often called a CTO than a CIO).

CIOs pay close attention to IT's relationship with other departments in the business and its bearing on bottom lines, and create budgets for future tech spending to share with other executives for their approval. They will also focus on matters such as the worldwide IT skills shortage – which 65 percent of CIOs believe is holding their progress back, according to the 2018 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO survey. By contrast, the CTO is likely more concerned with making the most of existing staffers' talents and time. 

Beyond the binary view

Enterprises that can afford to do so will likely benefit from bringing on two executives to fill these roles, either by promoting from within or recruiting outside talent. The CIO-CTO tandem allows for a divided delegation of responsibility for finding the right vision of an organization's tech needs and making it a reality. 

With that said, business owners who are currently somewhat strapped for capital, or those operating smaller outfits, don't necessarily need to think of the CTO-CIO division as a hard-and-fast binary. Both sets of responsibilities can be carried out by one person. But when choosing that route, it becomes even more important to find the ideal candidate – not a merely satisfactory applicant. Company leaders can collaborate with the staffing experts at Marchon Partners to ensure they pick the right person for their specific technical needs and goals.