Main image of article Chart Your Course to Becoming CTO

Whether you’re a mid-level tech professional who wants to climb the company ladder or a quick learner experiencing rapid success in their first roles, you stand a good chance of becoming a chief technology officer (CTO).

A recent survey shows that 35 percent of CTOs landed their first job in just five to 10 years, while 27 percent took the helm after 11 to 15 years, proving that it’s possible to ascend fairly quickly if you plot the right course.

Best of all, there’s no shortage of opportunities. Zappia projects that 150,600 CTO positions will become available by 2028. They also place the average annual salary at $172,989, making the reward worth the effort.  

The challenges, prestige and pay sound great—but how do you actually chart a course to become a CTO? Here’s a look at the skills, knowledge and experience you need to acquire.

Develop a ‘T-Shaped’ Skillset

You don’t have to be proficient with every cutting-edge technology to become a CTO—you just need to be a T-shaped person, explained Jason Noble, CTO and co-founder of CTO Academy.

Most CTOs have deep vertical skills in a specialized area, coupled with broad exposure or experience in other areas, which allows them to collaborate or develop strategies outside of their field of expertise.

To identify T-shaped skills, Rebecca Gott, IBM Distinguished Engineer and CTO of IBM Power Platform, suggests you remain curious and take the time to look at adjacent technologies that can offer ideas for how to improve a similar technology. Then, add both depth and breadth to your “T-bar” through side projects, stretch assignments, lateral moves or even changing jobs or industries.

For instance, Gott was able to gain hands-on experience with blockchain architecture and understand its benefits to customers when she volunteered to help build a new server as part of a side project at IBM under the tutelage of a distinguished engineer. She used the knowledge to change the way the company designs and builds processor chips.

For many people, learning the fundamentals starts in college; but for others, base-level knowledge is accrued via a long career driven by hard work and a willingness to keep an open mind, noted Sandy Jen, CTO and co-founder of Honor. For instance, if you’re going to lead engineering or manage R&D, it is critical to have immersed yourself and deeply understand how engineering works, how best to maximize its potential, and how engineering teams operate.

Acquire Business Sense

Today, the CTO’s most important responsibility is to use technology to generate value for a company and help it achieve its business objectives. The ability to turn digital investments into innovative cost-effective products and services requires a holistic view, analytical skills and strategic thinking.

One of the best ways to understand the business side of technology is by serving as a product manager or tech lead who owns the technical direction of the product. You should also strive to understand the business case for every solution you create as a developer or software engineer.

Although it’s not required, many technologists end up getting an MBA or taking some business-oriented courses to increase their chances of being promoted.

Hone Your Communication Skills

Another key skill CTOs need is communication, specifically the ability to communicate ideas and sell your technical vision to non-technologists using the language of business, not just tech.

According to the IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV), 67 percent of CTOs said they report directly into the C-suite versus a business unit or geography leader, and 29 percent expect their next role to be a CEO. That speaks to the need for effective communication; polish your communication skills by seeking opportunities to present to senior executives, senior management, the C-Suite or a board of directors.

Learn How to Hire, Manage and Lead High-Value Teams

As a CTO, your success hinges on your ability to hire great people, develop them and build a strong, purpose-driven team culture.

Although most CTOs (60 percent) hone their people management and leadership skills by working as a tech lead, engineering manager or head of development, those promoted solely because of technical skills will need the advice of a strong peer network, advised Noble, who learned this lesson the hard way.

Being a CTO requires an entirely new set of skills. If you don’t learn how to manage and lead people, you may end up losing the team and failing right out of the gate.

Foster a Strong Peer Network

Some of the other things that often derail new CTOs is a lack of confidence in their abilities, also known as imposter syndrome.

They also discover that it’s lonely at the top; they might feel like they can’t bounce ideas off anyone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you encounter something new.

It takes grounding and prior exposure to navigate through the challenges you will face as a CTO. Your network can serve as a valuable sounding board and help you get comfortable with being uncomfortable, which is a critical competency for navigating the uncertain world of the CTO. Good luck!