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:
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.
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.
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:
A chief technology officer's responsibilities include:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
For further reading and additional resources for those considering a career as a CTO, check out:
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