Question: Is there a generally accepted definition for what a CTO does?
Paul van Essche: Not in my experience. The definition is both variable and continuously evolving. For example, the CTO may be primarily responsible for upgrades to the company’s computer equipment and applications, and generally keeping the IT lights on. In a more recent context, the role might be very different, and highly connected to the business front-line, while the day-to-day IT work and infrastructure is outsourced. In the latter case, the CTO is said to be “client-connected,” and plays an active role in translating customer requirements into solution design and implementation, while his or her back-end responsibilities are more about managing contracts with service providers.
Question: What traits must a CTO have?
van Essche: A CTO has to be able to make decisions about how to either develop or implement information technology in such a way as to improve the company’s bottom line. That means that the CTO must have a grasp of what is happening in the market, what the company’s long- and short-term goals are, what customer needs are, and how those factors are likely to shift in coming months and years. These abilities clearly favor the front-facing role we just discussed, so the CTO must also be able to operate and think along with other C-level executives, rather than being just the resident techie. These days a CTO needs creative vision and strategic nous as much as the CEO or CFO does.
Question: When did CTOs first come on the scene?
van Essche: If you think about it, since the beginning of humanity! Fire, wheels and the shaduf were all the emerging technologies of their day, and somebody was no doubt in charge. But as technology has come to signify information technology more predominantly, and we sometimes use CIO and CTO interchangeably, I guess we had CTOs as early as the 1970s and 1980s, though they likely reached ubiquitous status during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s.