Computer Science

Would I Be a Good Chief Technology Officer? [Career Path, Skills + Requirements]

Would I Be a Good Chief Technology Officer? [Career Path, Skills + Requirements]
A CTO's primary responsibility is to understand and implement new technologies for companies and governments. They must also oversee and manage personnel and budgets. Image from Unsplash
Jordan Landsman profile
Jordan Landsman March 18, 2021

It takes a career of learning and achievement to reach the chief technology officer position—unless you and some buddies form a company straight out of school. Most CTOs take the former route. Read on to learn how.

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Have you ever envisioned yourself in the C-suite, making the big decisions that influence a company’s technology use? Maybe you’re the person in your friend group who leaves the party early to stay up all night coding. Or perhaps you’re just the family member who everyone turns to when the Wi-Fi stops working.

Regardless, if you’re ready to study hard and work even harder, chief technology officer might be your dream job. But before you can expect a promotion to one of the most important–and highly compensated–leadership roles, expect a long road that can take “around 24 years from the completion of higher education.”

To succeed as a CTO, you’ll need to develop an array of hard and soft skills. A 2018 Forbes article lays out thirteen critical competencies They include everything from geeky tech skills (coding, security) to critical soft skills (communication, time management, strategy).

In this guide, we’ll break down what precisely a chief technology officer does, as well as the many paths you can take to reach this position so you can answer the question would I be a good chief technology officer for yourself. We’ll answer the questions that every prospective CTO should ask, including:

  • What is a chief technology officer?
  • How much does a chief technology officer make?
  • How do you become a chief technology officer?
  • Would you be a good chief technology officer?

What is a chief technology officer?

Simply put, a CTO’s primary responsibility is to understand and implement new technologies for companies and governments. This can mean a variety of things depending on the organization. Typical areas of responsibilities include:

  • Automation
  • Coding
  • Customer service
  • E-commerce
  • Product development
  • Security and privacy management
  • Software development
  • Technology strategy
  • User experience
  • Vendor management

Before the 1980s, CTOs were relatively rare. However, as the rate of technological innovation accelerates, the role of CTO has gone from being a novelty to a necessity in the 21st century.

While most CTO positions are found in private companies, the role also exists at the state and federal levels. On April 18, 2009, former President Barack Obama made history by announcing the appointment of Aneesh Chopra as the United States’ first chief technology officer.

When Chopra was interviewed by Saul Hansell of The New York Times and asked what his objectives were for the newly minted position, he offered the following list:

  • Addressing presidential priorities through innovation platforms
  • Building the next-generation digital infrastructure
  • Fostering a culture of open and innovative government
  • Nurturing economic growth through innovation

CTO vs. CIO

In the corporate world, when a company also has a chief information officer (CIO), the CTO usually develops customer-facing technology while the CIO handles internal infrastructure. However, since there is typically some overlap between a CTO’s and CIO’s responsibilities, the ability to work as a team and juggle multiple projects is vital for anyone pursuing the role.

What does a CTO do?

There is no set definition of what a CTO does; the job varies depending on the organization. In their 2002 whitepaper, The Role of the CTO: Four Models for Success, Tom Berray and Raj Sampath sought to dispel some of this ambiguity by identifying four common types of CTOs.

  • CTO as “Infrastructure Manager”
  • CTO as “Big Thinker”
  • CTO as “Technology Visionary and Operations Manager”
  • CTO as “External-facing Technologist”

Some organizations may require their CTOs to act as some combination of these four models or want them to carve out their own responsibilities.

What CTOs actually do on a day-to-day basis can fluctuate wildly, but almost all work extremely hard and keep long, grueling hours. “Uneasy is the head that wears a crown,” wrote the immortal bard, but the same could be said of any job that requires as much stress and responsibility as CTO, even if you’re not ruling England.

Since the common denominator for all CTOs is, of course, technology, aspirants to the position may want to gain a background in computer science or information systems. Expertise in cybersecurity also provides prospective CTOs an edge, especially considering the increasing number of threats from hackers that, per a recent New York Times headline, are “crippling cities and businesses.”

Since almost all CTOs receive more than just a bachelor’s degree, the question may not be if you should get a master’s, so much as where and in what field. Not all master’s programs are created equally, and some degrees may make you a more attractive candidate or help you guarantee a higher salary.

Later in this article, we’ll take a look at some different schools that can deliver the academic background you’ll need to become a CTO. After that, we’ll look at the type of work experience that CTOs typically have before being promoted to the C-suite. But before we get into any of that, let’s answer a question you’ll probably want answered before you shell out your tuition money.

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How much does a chief technology officer make?

CTOs, along with CIOs (chief information officers), rank among the highest-paying tech jobs on the planet. This is no wonder when you consider how much education and experience it usually takes to ascend to these C-suite positions (not to mention the enormous responsibility and accompanying stress). The tech sector is a highly competitive field, and the CTO is at the top of the ladder.

However, once you’ve paid your dues and proven that you are forward-thinking enough to design and implement a company’s technology strategy, you can expect your compensation to be commensurate with the responsibilities that entails.

According to Salary.com, the average salary for a CTO is $248,867, within a range from $208,696 and $291,093. And that’s just salary; CTOs typically also receive stock options, bonuses, commissions, and other additional incentives.

Even on the low end of the salary spectrum, the average compensation for chief technology officers in the bottom 10 percent is still $172,122, which is certainly nothing to scoff at. The big money, of course, is in the top 10 percent, where the average base salary for a CTO is a whopping $329,538. Add to that the aforementioned stock options, bonuses, and commissions, and it’s easy to see why so many people aspire to this lofty position.

How to become a chief technology officer

The path to becoming a chief technology officer can take many forms, but almost all of them require many years of education and experience. Since no one is likely to come up to you at the mall and ask if you’ve ever considered being a CTO, you’ll have to develop an impressive resume that shows you can work hard and understand complicated, ever-changing technology trends.

Education

If your plan is to pursue a technocentric career, it may be wise to choose a STEM major in college. But not everyone knows what they want to do straight out of high school, and sometimes having two majors in seemingly unrelated fields (e.g., information technology and business administration) will make you the strongest candidate.

After you gain a bachelor’s degree, though, it probably doesn’t make sense to get your master’s in philosophy if what you really want to do is work with technology. Among the most common degrees that CTOs obtain are master’s in:

In addition to traditional, in-person programs, these days there are many online master’s degrees that can offer you a high-quality education from the comfort of your home. Top options include:

Finding a program with a solid academic reputation is critical. According to a 2016 survey conducted by LinkedIn, “85 percent of all jobs are filled via networking,” and a solid academic reputation leads to greater networking opportunities. If you consider yourself an introvert by nature, becoming a CTO will be a challenge because, beyond understanding technology, you’ll need to be an effective communicator and leader as well.

But if the thought of speaking publicly or networking gives you anxiety, don’t fret! There are tons of resources out there to help you break out of your shell. To start, check out these 7 Networking Tips for Graduate Students provided by Northeastern University, or consider joining your local Toastmasters group.

Certifications

Thought your education would begin and end with graduate school? Think again! While there’s no single certification that will guarantee you a spot in the C-suite, there are many programs that can expand your breadth of knowledge and introduce you to new people along the way.

Also, certificate programs show prospective employers that you’re proficient in areas outside of your master’s degree and willing to go the extra mile.

Listed below are some areas in which CTOs typically earn certifications:

  • Business strategy
  • Computer information systems
  • Cybersecurity
  • Executive leadership
  • Global management
  • Proficiency in a foreign language
  • Project management
  • Software engineering

Skills

To be an effective CTO, you’ll need a combination of hard and soft skills. On the hard side of the equation, this means a firm grasp of existing and emerging technologies. Experience with computer engineering, the ability to code across different programming languages, and an understanding of systems architecture are important skills that a CTO must have.

But since chief technology officer is essentially a leadership role, your soft skills will be just as crucial. You may be filled to the brim with innovative ideas, but if you can’t communicate them to your team, good luck getting anything accomplished. And speaking of your team, as CTO, without effective hiring and mentoring skills, your organization may fall behind when it’s time to implement the goals that you set out for it.

Experience

CTOs are rarely plucked from obscurity or hired straight out of grad school (OK, if it’s a tiny startup, maybe they are). Most have at least 10 of professional experience before they are promoted (there are exceptions, of course).

Would-be CTOs should develop strong working relationships and try to gain a reputation as effective leaders. Many CTOs are promoted after years of experience as an outstanding project manager, IT director, or vice-president of technology.

Would you be a good chief technology officer?

So, do you think you have what it takes to be a good chief technology officer? While the C-suite may seem like an enviable place from the outside, be prepared for years of education and hard work to get there.

Not everyone is meant to be a chief technology officer. If you’re looking for a job that lets you maintain an active social life or gives you ample time for your hobbies, being a CTO might not be the best fit.

According to Forbes, a love of learning and the ability to think about the big picture are essential traits for every CTO. If you’d rather be on the ground, solving technical problems instead of communicating your vision to chief executives, stakeholders—or the President of the United States, for that matter—you may be better off pursuing a different career that you personally would find more fulfilling.

However, if technology and leadership are your twin passions and you’d relish the opportunity to lay the roadmap for an organization’s use of technology, you might make a terrific CTO. For your hard work and dedication, you’ll be generously compensated, which may make up for the stress that so much responsibility can cause. And once you’ve been promoted to CTO, there’s a good chance you’ll love your job. A survey conducted by PayScale found that out of 345 CTOs, the average job satisfaction rating was 4.2 out of 5.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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