Becoming Chief Technology Officer is the summit of a contemporary technology career. Organizations which must adapt rapidly to new tech developments every year depend on skilled CTOs to chart their courses. When not planning technology upgrade strategies, the CTO maintains maximum system availability and implements software improvements while fending off data breaches and cyber-attacks. Little wonder that the average CTO base salary is about the same as a Supreme Court Justice, or that corporations fight over the best ones.
According to UK consultancy Agil8, which looked at the career paths of prominent CTOs, it takes and average of 24 years and eight positions in four companies to make it to the top. Not everyone fits the mold, of course, but there does seem to be a common path. Let’s break that path into steps.
- Acquire Credentials
Companies prefer CTOs with degrees from accredited universities, most commonly in majors such as software engineering, computer science or information technology. Often, tech degree holders are encouraged to get an MBA, while business majors are often urged to get a master’s degree in a technology field. The reason is simple - a CTO must be credible enough to manage a team of tech professionals, but business savvy enough to invest strategically, manage large budgets and allocate scarce resources, all in alignment with an organization’s strategic goals.
- Practical Experience
Once out of school, an aspiring CTO should both develop and demonstrate technical competence, ideally including one of the critical areas that organizations focus on such as the E-commerce, IoT, artificial intelligence, big data, or cybersecurity; the goal is to demonstrate a successful transition from academic to workplace competence in a less-structured environment with complex real-world problems. The workplace also offers a chance to add new skill sets, vital given the rate of change in technology. After all, a new CTO with knowledge 24 years out of date (the average length of time it takes to be named CTO) will face challenges.
- Industry Experience
With the transition into real-world tech problems accomplished, an aspiring CTO should decide which industry to commit to developing expertise in, since the average CTO spends at least 5 to 7 years in progressively responsible technology leadership positions in the same sector before assuming the CTO role. Naturally, an E-commerce company would most likely look for a CTO within its specialization instead of someone who came from heavy equipment manufacturing and understood enterprise level ERP systems and general information technology but not frontend development or website optimization.
- Reputation and Network
Moving up the career ladder within an industry, the future CTO should cultivate a reputation for curiosity and good judgment as well as technical skill. Speaking at conferences and establishing relationships with other professionals is critical. It also helps to be a person that recruiters know they can call when looking to fill slots. It might be to recommend someone else, but establishing relationships frequently proves beneficial. One thing to consider, however – Forbes says that 54% of CTO hires are from internal candidates.
- Communication Skills
The skill that nearly all CTOs say is one of the most critical is communication. A CTO must explain technology to colleagues, articulate strategies, explain tech policy to the organization, and motivate staff. Developing strong written and oral communication skills are necessary to perform successfully at the highest rung of the organizational ladder is perhaps the key attribute that separates two candidates with otherwise comparable skills.
Understanding organizational challenges, tapping a professional network for background information, engaging the help of persons skilled in interview coaching for professionals, lining up references, convincing future colleagues they’ll be in good hands – these are the final steps in the journey.