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What don't people understand about being a CTO?

What don't people understand about being a CTO?

Their role in M&A, the level of overlap with product strategy and the focus on people are sometimes overlooked, members of Protocol's Braintrust say.

Good afternoon! Today's entry is the next in our c-suite mini-series. We asked 5 chief technology officers about how they view their role and what people on the outside often misunderstand about their remit. Want to see the others? You can see our CEO edition here and our CIO edition here.

Vijay Sankaran

Vice president and chief technology officer at Johnson Controls

The title, chief technology officer, immediately brings the caricature of a techie-centric leader who is focused on a hard-core technology vision, the bits and the bytes, and externally focused on pitching the forward technology prowess of the company. Certainly, being the CTO is all these things, and it’s extremely important to have a tech-savvy leader in the role, but being a CTO is much more than being the tech Svengali for the company.

Being a CTO also has a lot of business responsibilities — educating colleagues on the senior leadership team around technology and the value that the technology can bring to their businesses, helping set the vision around compelling solutions that drives business growth, strategically identifying M&A opportunities that are additive to the in-house capabilities that are in place, building a high-performance team through organizational objectives and key results and KPIs, establishing a culture that is innovative, fun and attracts the best talent and establishing platform strategies and a global footprint that drives efficiency and productivity in the software organization.

It’s this balance of responsibilities that makes this job interesting for me (and challenging). It’s not all about tech, and has a large people dimension. You are juggling multiple balls at the same time — ensuring that you're orienting the organization toward the future while at the same time optimizing for delivery in the present!

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Rathi Murthy

Chief technology officer at Expedia Group

Today’s CTO has a much broader remit than ever before. Technology is the backbone of most organizations, which means that the tech strategy needs to closely align with the product strategy and the overall strategy of the company. With technology evolving at such a rapid pace, it seems there’s always a new product or way to do things that will make a business faster, smarter or more value-driven. So being a CTO today means so much more than just managing a company’s current tech stack or consolidating it to one stack; we are responsible for exploring the potential of all the latest technologies available — their specific use cases and future business impact — or we risk falling behind and building on outdated tech.

There’s a constant trade-off that CTOs have between ensuring that we’re delivering the most value to our customers in an iterative fashion while simultaneously modernizing behind the scenes in a way that doesn’t disrupt the quality of service.

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John Roese

Global chief technology officer at Dell Technologies

There is a misperception of CTOs as simply the “technical brains” of an organization when the truth of the matter is that effective CTOs know that technology innovation that never becomes real or impacts society and industry means very little. CTOs are not just experts; they are connectors, enablers, influencers and, in many cases, owners and delivery vehicles for real-world technology strategy and innovation. Our ability to lean into our innate curiosity enables us to identify not just the technology opportunity but also the bridges that need to be built to move innovation forward.

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Raji Subramanian

Chief technology officer at Opendoor

There can be misconceptions that being a CTO is primarily a leadership role, meaning the main focus is on hiring, managing people and creating best practices for a strong engineering culture. While that’s a very important component, there is so much more to this position. For me, it is also about value creation and where the engineering part of the leadership is key. It is about connecting the dots to innovate and working backwards to engineer consumer and business value. How can senior leadership, like the CTO, influence value creation while creating best-in-class engineering organizations? The combination of the two is how you create transformative products.

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Rob Lee

Chief technology officer at Pure Storage

When considering various types of C-suite roles, the role of CTO is probably the most varied and nuanced because it hinges on three things: what the role entails, the skill set of an individual and the needs of the organization. Also, the role varies across industries — e.g., CTOs serving a manufacturing organization will naturally bring a different skill set than a CTO serving a retail company or a technology-driven product company. That said, regardless of industry or individual capability, there’s a great deal of adaptability and breadth required in any CTO role in order to provide broad perspectives that connect a product vision to the company’s goals to the customer needs and demands that the competitive landscape is calling for.

At Pure, we have world-class product and engineering teams defining, building, testing and getting our products and services to market. They’re focused on building the best technology to serve our customers today and in the near future. Where I come in and influence our business as CTO is working closely across the organization to connect our product and technology to the business and serving as the eyes and ears of our organization: looking left, right and ahead to see what’s coming, what we should anticipate and what we want our future to look like. The ability to anticipate, adapt and influence the future of a product based on what a customer could potentially want down the road is becoming increasingly critical for CTOs looking to influence the long-term trajectory of their organizations.

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See who's who in the Protocol Braintrust and browse every previous edition by category here (Updated Sept. 13, 2022).

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