This Thursday, October 4, I’ll be taking part in a panel at the Outsell Signature event in London. I’m joining Max Gabriel from Taylor & Francis, Christina Scott of News UK and chair David Worlock to discuss what role Chief Technology Officers play in executing strategy in the ‘AI age’.
As I’ve been prepping myself for the panel, it’s opened up a much bigger question to me. What is the CTO’s role? Period.
You may be thinking, ‘What does he know about CTOs, he’s a startup founder?’ And it’s a good question - luckily one I can answer. Before I blew up my corporate career to found Zapnito, I worked with CTOs and CIOs for large corporations, finally becoming a CTO myself at Informa Business Intelligence. I also set up the Chief Product Office at Nature Publishing Group (now Springer Nature), before finally jumping off the corporate ship.
What are the current challenges?
From my perspective, the CTO role (sometimes playfully referred to as Career Totally Over) is a role full of conflicts. Innovation versus governance. Building versus buying. Failing fast versus enterprise architecture. ‘Intrepreneur’ versus bureaucrat. The list is endless.
The role, as it currently stands, jumps from one moment implementing a security policy, to the next, releasing a new cutting-edge technology without much testing.
With technology playing an ever increasing role in most businesses, it isn’t even solely under the remit of CTOs anymore. Many companies also have Chief Product Officers (CPOs) who own the product, the UX, UI and the usage of the application. Yet much of the time, they must work alongside IT and the CTO to get resources and budget to make work happen.
To be honest, I think all these titles can sometimes be pretty limiting. In the end, what matters are the ‘jobs to be done’. What is the job? And who is the best person to do that job? Then titles can happen.
Chief Solutions Officer - the future for CTOs?
As I have moved from a buyer of enterprise software to a seller of enterprise software, I have come across a lot of CTOs. And the ones that truly stand out to me, are the ones that should really be called Chief Solutions Officer.
The most effective CTOs, both now and in the future, need to focus on the best technology solutions to business problems. They don't have a preference for buying or building. They have a preference for finding the right solution.
We’re a SaaS company and we’ve built our platform, so you’d think we’d be all about building the solution. But even our CTO Jon (my cofounder and user #1 on the platform), first looks for solutions before he decides whether to build or to buy.
If the solution to our product challenge can be bought off the shelf, then why not buy it? If it can't be, and what’s required fits squarely with our vision for the platform, then we should be building it.
The bigger role of CTOs in organisations
One of the most interesting pieces I’ve read recently about c-suite roles suggests that rotating them might be the best option. As in, you might be CEO for six months and then CTO, then something else.
This would throw the ‘Career Totally Over’ acronym back into the long grass, offering a sense of career progression and momentum. But what appeals to me most about this idea is that you’ll have a CEO, and potentially a whole senior leadership team, who truly understands the challenges and opportunities facing those working in tech today - including AI.