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How to Become a CTO (Chief Technology Officer)

Over the past few decades, computer technology has been advancing rapidly. While the first human inventions took thousands of years to progress, major shifts in computer technology are occurring every few years, if not months, in the 21st century. For businesses, having a chief technology officer (CTO) who keeps up with advances and leads technology programs is increasingly important.

The chief technology officer ensures that current applications, hardware, and processes support the organization’s goals and employees. 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.

Technology, applications, and cybersecurity are in a constant state of flux, and successful CTOs know they need to be adaptable to change and proactive in their strategy. Companies often hire candidates with a master’s in cybersecurity or similar IT degree to ensure they have the proper education and background for the position. When determining how to become a CTO, the first step is always education.

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 to support its goals. A CTO guides the business through the growing pains of implementing new technologies, securing data, and maintaining networks.
  2. Technology Planning: The evolution of technology progresses 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 a company’s 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 IT infrastructure and capital needed to achieve business goals.

CTOs are expected to keep up with the latest digital trends, and they should also know how those 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. How to become a CTO 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 in the industry is the rise of cybersecurity to protect company data from malicious threats. New educational programs, such as Maryville University’s online cybersecurity bachelor’s degree, address this growing concern. Courses such as cybersecurity incident response and examination prepare future CTOs to protect digital assets.

A bachelor’s degree sets the foundation for any professional who wants to become a CTO. With knowledge of database design, digital forensics, cyber law, programming, data integrity, and beyond, graduates can 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 typically 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 ten years of experience before applying to a managerial or directorial role. Once in a managerial position, IT managers who want to work as CTOs must usually spend an additional five to seven years honing their 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 to lead an entire organization’s technology strategy.

What Skills Should a CTO Have?

In addition to technological expertise, a CTO must have the confidence to effectively lead a team of people across multiple departments. To become a successful CTO, a professional must be proficient in technical, business, and management skills.

Technical Skills

A CTO’s technical skills require expertise in IT infrastructure, security, asset management, help desk support, and research and development. Everything from hardware to the company website falls under the CTO’s purview. They oversee the role of technology in meeting overall business goals. This may include managing access to certain technologies and applications on the company network, responding to outages and cyber hacks, and backing up key data.

Business and Management Skills

A CTO must also be able to manage teams, communicate effectively across departments, and work with other executives. Here are the top five skills successful CTOs demonstrate.

  • Business: As a company leader, a CTO must demonstrate an 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 modeling, and project management.
  • Leadership: For IT teams to work efficiently and effectively, CTOs must motivate their employees to work toward a common goal. To achieve that goal, a CTO must clearly delegate responsibilities to other leaders in the IT department while providing mentoring where needed. This is especially important in large tech firms with hundreds of IT employees.
  • Decision-making: A CTO has to make many important decisions, often 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 and improve its bottom line.
  • Organization: Depending on the size of the company, a CTO may have to manage several departments, such as network infrastructure, security, and help desk support. A CTO ensures these departments include the optimal expertise and resources 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 throughout the organization and is also open to feedback for continued improvement. CTOs need to communicate in two ways: in technical terms with their IT team to navigate complicated issues, and in lay terms to translate key information to CEOs and other executives who may not have an IT background.

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.

Industries Where Chief Technology Officers Can Work

The first industry many think of when considering the role of CTOs is big tech. While it’s true that Microsoft, Apple, and social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter all have powerful CTOs to run their technical operations, chief technology officers are in high demand across many different industries due to technology’s increasing importance to business.

Financial institutions like Bank of America, ridesharing companies like Uber, beverage companies like Starbucks, motor vehicle companies like Ford, and music streaming companies like Spotify all depend on CTOs to ensure their companies have the technology and cybersecurity to compete with their rivals and meet consumers’ expanding demands.

While CTOs were once primarily found in larger companies, they now also work with small firms, given that so many small businesses require the specialized skills and technical background they offer.

Who Do CTOs Manage?

Simply put, chief technology officers head a company’s IT presence. In some cases, that may only consist of a few employees, but in companies like Amazon or Google, the CTO may be in charge of thousands of IT professionals all over the globe. Regardless of company size, the CTO is at the top of the IT pyramid. Depending on the company, they oversee IT professionals including:

  • Data analysts
  • Data scientists
  • System administrators
  • Web developers
  • Software engineers
  • Software developers
  • Network engineers
  • Front-end developers
  • Computer technicians

Why Become a CTO?

While compensation is certainly a factor, there are other benefits to putting in the years of education and work experience required to become a chief technology officer.

CTO Salaries and Job Outlook

With the years of education and experience required to become a CTO, organizations know the importance of paying a CTO well. According to the compensation website PayScale, the average median base salary for a CTO was approximately $163,300 as of June 2021. This base salary is expected to increase in the coming years, as competition for hiring CTOs becomes more intense.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects the number of director and manager-level positions, including CTO positions, to increase by 48,100 between 2019 and 2029. With the rising number of opportunities, there are ample prospects for professionals to reach top IT positions.

The Importance of Vision

Becoming a CTO offers other benefits beyond a satisfying 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.

Begin Your Journey to Becoming a CTO

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

At Maryville, we are committed to not only showing you how to become a chief technology officer, but to providing you with the educational foundation and critical skills that make employers take notice.

Be brave. Take your first step toward becoming a CTO today with Maryville.

Recommended Reading

How to Become a CISO

Master’s in Cybersecurity Careers

Why Cybersecurity Matters

Sources

Career Builder, What Does an IT Department Actually Do?

Code Motion, How Can You Become a Chief Technology Officer?

Investopedia, Chief Technology Officer (CTO)

PayScale, Average Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Salary

The Org, The Top 10 Most Powerful CTOs in Tech

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Computer and Information Systems Managers