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How to Become a CTO

Over the past few decades, technology has been advancing at an exponential rate. While the first inventions took thousands of years to progress, big shifts in technology are occurring every few years in the 21st century, according to Ray Kurzweil in The Singularity Is Near. For businesses, having a chief technology officer who keeps up with advances and leads technology programs is increasingly important.

The chief technology officer (CTO) ensures that current applications, hardware, and processes support the goals and employees of the organization. CTO is one of the highest-ranking IT positions in a typical corporate hierarchy and professionals who want to know how to become a CTO should be ready for a lifetime of learning.

Female profesional sitting down with laptop and phone on desk

Responsibilities of a CTO

A CTO’s primary responsibility is to understand and implement technologies that help a business achieve its goals and objectives. Depending on the size of the organization, a CTO focuses on four primary areas of the business:

  1. Implementing Infrastructure: As a company grows, so must the technical infrastructure needed to support the company’s goals. A CTO is there to guide the business through the growing pains of implementing new technologies, securing data, and maintaining networks.
  2. Technology Planning: The evolution of technology happens at a much faster rate than a business can implement. A CTO determines which new technologies a business should apply to its current processes to drive continued success.
  3. Customer Focus: A CTO focuses on the target markets of the business and deploys IT projects to support positive customer experiences.
  4. Thought Leadership: A CTO works closely with executive members, often reporting directly to the CEO. With a deep understanding of technology trends and target markets, a CTO plays a significant role in developing the corporate strategy regarding the infrastructure and capital needed to achieve business goals.

CTOs are often expected to keep on top of digital trends, and they should also know how said trends will impact their business. Professionals interested in becoming CTOs usually advance to this high-level position by completing certain steps along the career path. The journey begins by pursuing postsecondary education, such as an online bachelor’s in cybersecurity.

Typical Steps to Becoming a CTO

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Nearly all CTOs start their professional journeys by earning a bachelor’s degree in a computer science-related field. A recent trend is the rise of cybersecurity and protecting company data from malicious threats. New educational programs, like Maryville’s online cybersecurity bachelor’s degree, address this growing concern.

A bachelor’s degree sets the foundation for any professional who wants to become a CTO. With the knowledge of database design, digital forensics, cyber law, programming, and data integrity, graduates can move on to work in a variety of IT professions. Aspiring CTOs must build a strong educational base and gain experience in entry-level positions before taking the next step toward becoming a CTO.

Step 2: Gain On-the-Job Experience

As new problems lead to new IT specialties and roles, the CTO’s job becomes more complex. Organizations depend on their CTOs to have the experience to understand these complexities and to ensure that the right people are in place to address any concerns. CTOs gain this experience and understanding by working in a number of IT areas, such as:

  • Network architecture
  • Big data engineering
  • Information security management
  • Security engineering
  • Web software development

Positions in the above areas may require only a few years of experience, but professionals need to have between five and 10 years of experience, total, before applying to a manager or director role. Once in a managerial position, an IT manager who wants to work as a CTO must spend an additional five to seven years honing his or her leadership and business skills.

Typically, a professional must work in the IT field for at least 15 years before seeking employment as a CTO. This experience is crucial for developing the skills necessary to lead an entire organization’s technology strategy.

What Skills Does a CTO Have?

In addition to having technological expertise, a CTO needs to have the confidence to lead a team of people across multiple departments effectively. To become a CTO, a professional must be proficient in the following skill areas:

  • Business: As a leader in an organization, a CTO must demonstrate his or her understanding of the business’ needs when developing and implementing strategic plans. To support these plans, a CTO must have knowledge in subject areas such as finance, business modelling, and project management.
  • Leadership: For IT teams to work efficiently and effectively, a CTO must motivate his or her employees to work toward one common goal. To achieve that goal, a CTO must clearly delegate responsibilities to other leaders in the IT department while providing mentoring where needed.
  • Decision-making: A CTO has to make important decisions about purchasing new technologies and allocating resources to carry out projects. To adhere to the IT department budget, a CTO may have to find ways to cut costs, such as outsourcing services or changing third-party vendors. Using data and input from employee leaders, a CTO can confidently make decisions that support the goals of the business.
  • Organization: Depending on the size of the organization, a CTO may have to manage several departments, such as network infrastructure, security, and help desk support. A CTO ensures that these departments include the right expertise to work cohesively with one another.
  • Communication: IT employees and senior executives both look to the CTO to provide guidance on technology strategy and direction. A successful CTO communicates clearly with the organization and is also open to feedback for continued improvement.

Step 3: Earn a Master’s Degree (Optional)

After spending some time working in the technology field, IT professionals with the ultimate goal of becoming a CTO should consider pursuing a master’s degree. A CTO needs to have the technological expertise and a keen business sense to be successful in a leadership role. A master’s program that focuses on the technical area of business administration, such as an online cybersecurity master’s, can help students develop skills in management-related areas, such as accounting and finance.

Why Become a CTO?

With the years of education and experience required to become a CTO, organizations know the importance of paying a CTO well. According to PayScale, the average annual base salary for a CTO is $153,830. This base salary may increase in the coming years, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the number of director- and manager-level positions, including CTO positions, to increase by 44,200 between 2016 and 2026. With the rising number of opportunities in the next eight years, there is ample runway for professionals to reach the top IT positions in organizations.

However, becoming a CTO holds other promises aside from a paycheck. A CTO carries the power of envisioning how technology can help a company excel and the responsibility of implementing feasible changes based on time, budget, and necessity. A professional who is interested in how to become a CTO is entering a rapidly growing field, with new technologies emerging almost daily.

One way to advance in this promising field is to read more about Maryville’s master’s in cybersecurity online program. It can prepare a professional with the skills necessary to excel in a fast-paced technological environment and set a trajectory for long-term business success.


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Maryville Master’s in Cybersecurity Online

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