Chief technology officers (CTOs) hold several professional roles before joining the C-suite. Whether they start as a developer or engineer, then move into a director or vice president role, they’re learning the technical and soft skills necessary to run a company’s tech stack at scale. What kind of career paths are available to CTOs?
A CTO’s previous roles are steppingstones that build up foundational knowledge and provide them with the experience, knowledge, and relationships that will later lead to success in their role. Let’s break down CTO career paths!
Starting out: Educating the CTO
Anyone looking to eventually step into this C-suite leadership role should take the opportunity to absorb as much as they can at every level to strengthen their skills and give them the perspective needed to manage increasingly larger teams. In other words, the CTO journey is one of continuous learning.
Tony Lee, CTO of Hyperscience, says aspiring CTOs often need an undergraduate degree in a technology-related major, such as computer or information science. “Gaining expertise in areas like programming, data analytics, and technical writing can be fostered earlier in education, but is refined and mastered at the college and graduate level,” he says.
Demonstrating a strong understanding and command of technical skills is always required for technology positions, but the degree tends to hold more weight at the CTO level than it may have earlier in one’s career, serving as a foundation for growth. “Additionally, if an individual is considering pursuing a CTO role, it is not required, but often preferred, that applicants have a master’s degree in either a continuing technical program or a business program,” he adds.
Lee notes organizations historically prefer a second degree in a program that covers business management and strategy. “CTOs not only oversee technical details of the business but also are key stakeholders in decision-making, paving the way for the company’s future,” he notes.
CTOs and the Importance of Practical Experience
Vikhyat Chaudhry, co-founder, CTO and COO of Buzz Solutions, says that, beyond education and certifications, practical experience is crucial for a CTO role.
“People can gain experience through internships, entry-level positions, or roles that allow them to work on technology projects,” he says. “As one progresses in their career, they should aim for roles with increasing responsibilities and leadership opportunities.”
From his perspective, effective CTOs need strong leadership, communication, and interpersonal skills. “People should work on developing these skills throughout their career, as they are essential for managing technology teams and collaborating with other departments in an organization,” he says.
Since technology is constantly evolving, it's important to stay current with industry trends, emerging technologies, and best practices. As you ascend toward the CTO role, make a point of attending conferences and participating in professional organizations; networking can only help you.
As part of your technical learning, earning relevant industry certifications can also help demonstrate your expertise. “Certifications from organizations like Microsoft, Cisco, AWS, or CompTIA can be beneficial,” Chaudhry says. “In addition, certifications related to project management, leadership, and cybersecurity may also be valuable.”
CTOs Need Technical Skills and Business Acumen
David Brassely, CTO of Gravitee, explains how he never aspired for a CTO role, but rather focused heavily on being the best developer he could be, in part because of his passion for the art of writing software.
“I developed a successful open source API solution which spring-boarded my path to becoming CTO,” he says. “My advice would be to continue to build technical and business and leadership skills to offer a well-rounded skill set as the natural evolution to becoming a CTO.”
He agrees that while having the technical background is key to being a successful CTO, aspiring CTOs (i.e. current IT practitioners) should supplement their technical knowledge with business acumen: “The CTO role is not about just making technical decisions, and rather, factoring in how a technical strategy aligns with the business goals.”
He notes time-to-market, resource availability, total cost of ownership, technical debt, market responsiveness, IP ownership and more are all factors that should be considered in strategic decision making: “It is thus important for aspiring CTOs to build a well-rounded portfolio of both technical and business skills.”
The CTO Role is Changing
Lee says the current state of the CTO is a blended role in many organizations, as they are actively involved in many cross-functional teams and departments like product and sales.
“What’s interesting is how the relationship between CTOs and vice presidents of engineering has evolved to allow chief technologists to focus on the overall impact technology has on all aspects of software, and less on the operational and execution strategy,” he says. “We’re seeing this become a stronger partnership between two distinct roles that ultimately drives more innovation and business growth opportunities.”
CTOs are not immune from the impact of generative A.I. “We can predict that the technology will continue to excel at hard skills such as coding and software testing, for example, challenging individuals to deepen their soft skills,” Lee explains.
He says these are the skills of future top tech talent, and aspiring CTOs should take note, getting ahead of the curve to solidify themselves as the leadership of tomorrow: “While I don’t predict technology will overtake the entire workforce, individuals who are open to working closely with machines and can effectively communicate, experiment, and lead will have a significant leg up.”
Chaudhry adds that ethical technology and responsible A.I. usage are also gaining prominence among CTOs who want to craft effective tech policies for their organizations. “CTOs must be mindful of the ethical implications of technology decisions and ensure that technology is used in a responsible and inclusive manner,” he says.