Engineering

How to Become a CTO (Also: What Does a CTO Do, Exactly?)

How to Become a CTO (Also: What Does a CTO Do, Exactly?)
Unlike its homonym "sea level," c-level is a pretty lofty locale. Image from Death to Stock Photos
Mary Kearl profile
Mary Kearl October 1, 2019

Yes, there is room for nerds in the c-suite. In fact, given the central role technology plays in modern business, most companies make room for several. The chief technology officer oversees technological product development, a critical function.

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Chief executive roles—often referred to as “c-level” positions or, collectively, as “the c-suite”— are the highest-paying jobs in the US, according to USA Today.

Unlike its homonym “sea level,” c-level is a pretty lofty locale.

C-level encompasses many different titles and fields of expertise, including a more recently developed role: the chief technology officer (CTO). Because the job title and profession are still relatively new—they only started gaining popularity in the 1990s and 2000s—both the role itself and the path leading to it are still being defined.

What is already clearly established, however, is how vital the role can be for companies—and even countries. Management consulting firm McKinsey has declared that “every company needs a chief technology officer” to guide the major technological transformations taking place at businesses across industries today.

President Barack Obama agreed, creating the position of US Chief Technology Officer on his first day in office. In establishing the role, Obama charged his appointee (Aneesh Chopra) with the task of defining the country’s technology strategy to ensure efficient operations and streamlined internal communication.

So, what does a CTO do exactly? The CTO is the central decision-maker responsible for finding and implementing advanced technology solutions that can help a company (or government) succeed. According to McKinsey’s findings, many businesses (26 percent) have too many chief officers involved in technology strategy setting but no clear owner. That’s where CTOs come in.

In this guide, we’ll cover more details about how to become a CTO, including:

  • The pros and cons of becoming a chief technology officer
  • Kinds of chief technology officer careers
  • Educational commitment to become a chief technology officer
  • Licensure and accreditation for becoming a chief technology officer
  • Further accreditation or education for a chief technology officer
  • Typical advancement path for a chief technology officer
  • Resources for becoming a chief technology officer

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The pros and cons of becoming a chief technology officer

On the upside, CTOs are well paid and enjoy high job satisfaction, excellent benefits, and opportunities to impact their companies’ success significantly. On the downside, it’s a bear of a job that can consume all your waking hours.

Pros of becoming a CTO:

  • Generous compensation: The average salary for a CTO is $157,788, according to PayScale. Additional compensation in the form of bonuses, stock options, and commissions can increase that amount substantially.
  • Job satisfaction: On average, people in the role of CTO grade their job satisfaction 4.2 out of 5, based on data from 400-plus CTOs provided by PayScale.
  • Opportunities to use strategic planning and thinking skills: 83 percent of technology chiefs surveyed in 2018 said their job has become more strategic in the last three years, according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • Leadership potential: In addition to leading tech teams, most CTOs (60 percent, according to a recent survey) serve on company executive committees. More and more, businesses are including the CTO in their top-level decision-making team.

Cons of becoming a CTO:

  • Lack of gender and racial diversity in the field: The gender-imbalance may be as high as 4 percent female to 96 percent male, per Payscale. Black and Latinx individuals hold fewer than 10 percent of senior leadership roles in tech, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Poor work-life balance: This job will suck up every waking moment if you let it. Also, you may not sleep well, so there will be lots of waking moments. A CTO’s responsibilities are great, and the consequences of failure severe—hence, lots of work, not so much sleep.

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“I’m Interested in Engineering!”

I.T. encompasses a vast spectrum of systems and applications. They include common networks most of us use every day, such as telephone and point-of-sale systems. At the other end of the spectrum are comparatively obscure, poorly understood systems like blockchain, used in cryptocurrencies and other transactions. In between lie background systems such as databases and inventory management, crucial to businesses, corporations, and government agencies. (source)

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the computer and information technology job market should grow by 15 percent between 2021 and 2031, creating more than 682,000 new jobs. Earning a Master of Science in Information Technology builds skill sets in critical areas that include cloud computing, algorithms, big data, business intelligence, cybersecurity, data science, machine learning, and IT management, among others. (source)

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Kinds of chief technology officer careers

While there is only one kind of CTO, there are other newly emerging and overlapping technology-related roles at the c-level. Here’s a brief overview of some of the most related positions.

Chief technology officer vs. chief information officer

In companies that have both CTOs and chief information officers (CIOs), the CTO is usually responsible for overseeing the creation of technology sold to external customers to help drive the business growth. The CIO, on the other hand, is responsible for technology solutions that help internal business infrastructure and operations.

A chief information officer’s responsibilities include:

  • Running internal IT operations
  • Leveraging technology to streamline day-to-day business
  • Meeting the needs of internal key stakeholders
  • Managing vendors
  • Making sure the IT infrastructure is aligned with overall business goals

A chief technology officer’s responsibilities include:

  • Overseeing the company’s engineering team
  • Meeting the needs of external key stakeholders
  • Managing vendors
  • Making sure the company’s product roadmap is aligned with overall business goals
  • Creating strategies that will help increase business revenue

Introducing the chief data officer

This is a new role that IBM’s eBook, The Chief Data Officer playbook, describes as “responsible for enterprise-wide management and use of data as an organizational—often strategic—asset.”

A chief data officer’s responsibilities include:

  • Overseeing all company data
  • Setting the business’s data management strategy
  • Measuring the impact of company data and data strategy on agility, profitability, and revenue

Educational commitment to become a chief technology officer

There is no single educational path to the CTO’s office. It’s not like being a lawyer, where law school is pretty much the only option. A high-school graduate could conceivably ascend to this role, although it’s also not terribly likely. This is a job that requires the type of broad knowledge typically acquired through schooling and certification programs.

Companies prefer CTOs with master’s degrees, such an an MBA, a master’s in computer science, a master’s in information technology, or a master’s in information technology management.

Some candidates may have additional higher education degrees (such as a PhD). Others may advance to the level of CTO with only a bachelor’s degree, although that is rarer, according to Business News Daily.


Licensure and accreditation for becoming a chief technology officer

Just as there’s no single type of degree a CTO must obtain to be considered a competitive job candidate, there’s also no formal certification required to work as a technology leader—though many CTOs come from IT backgrounds, so you might still want to earn some certifications on your way to the c-suite.

Some areas in which to consider pursuing certifications include:

  • Artificial intelligence (AI)
  • Budgeting
  • General leadership and professional development
  • Governance
  • IT/enterprise architecture
  • Project management
  • Risk management

Typical advancement path for a chief technology officer

CTO is a job that most people land after many years of hard work. It’s not unusual for job postings to require a minimum of 15 years of IT experience.

What’s left for someone who has reached this pinnacle of the tech world? Is there room for growth beyond moving to a more prominent or more promising company? A 2018 survey asked nearly 200 technology leaders to describe what career advancement they hoped to experience beyond their current roles.

Here’s what they said their next steps might be:

  • Chief technology officer at a larger company: 34 percent
  • Board member: 21 percent
  • Stay in current role: 9 percent
  • Chief operating officer (COO): 9 percent
  • Another type of c-level position (other than CEO or COO): 7 percent
  • Chief technology role at startup: 5 percent
  • CEO: 4 percent
  • Start own company: 4 percent
  • Other: 3 percent
  • Retire: 2 percent
  • Chief technology role at a smaller company: 1 percent

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Resources for becoming a chief technology officer

For further reading and additional resources for those considering a career as a CTO, check out:


(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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