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Warren Parad
Warren Parad

Posted on • Originally published at Medium on

Are you a CTO?

So, we’re all CTOs. What does that mean for each of us, since there’s no consistent industry definition?

This wasn’t the first time I had seen this question, and wasn’t the first time I had an answer. But I’ve decided to take this opportunity to write it down.

Before I jump into that, I want to set up a quick tangent. More and more companies are becoming tech companies, I’m hard-pressed to just list one here that doesn’t use it in some fashion today. I know they exist, but can you really think of one that doesn’t use some sort of device? It might be splitting hairs, but as soon as you use a device at work, it is now part of your business. How you set that device up, communicate with your customers, with your colleagues is now a critical aspect. You can no longer function without it, given that, I think this advice applies to everyone.

My current take is that CTO is now an outdated term for two reasons.

Technology as a differentiator

Technology is no longer only a small part of an organization, it permeates everywhere. In each corner that you find some it is unique for that area and not consistent with anywhere else. Having a unified view doesn’t really mean that much. There can’t be a single vision for how each device is used or the strategy for all software being consumed in a tech company.

When technology was a small IT part of a company, having a CTO to manage the core technology function made more sense.

We need to inject technology into our company to surpass our competitors

I haven’t heard that in my lifetime, and technology is no longer the instrument of competitive advantage. When technology was not pervasive in our society and businesses, it was the differentiator. You could make more product, make it faster, communicate internally, communicate externally, etc. But now that is no longer the innovation, you don’t bring someone into your company to run technology because “they heard of that thing before”. Everyone knows what technology is.

Additionally, more and more people have access to the knowledge and understanding of technology in your organization, it no longer needs to be one particular person driving that. I would be shocked to hear that there was one person in a company today that knew more about technology then the technologists on the ground.

Fixed organizational structure

Companies don’t have a fixed organization structure any more. Instead, you have levels of organization. Of which the lowest level I’ll call a business , and the company has a board which manages all the businesses in a company. In a historical business , you might find the standard C-level executives with the same titles, but over time the structure of business has evolved. We no longer always have the same structure in every organization, and this is easy to see. At very large organizations (>8000 people) the company takes on many challenges in different facets of commercial market, and there is frequently a CEO for each one of these business.

It no longer makes sense to call the role a CTO does in your company’s board , the roll a CTO does at a business , and the roll a CTO does at a startup, the same thing. It should be obvious from the example, but I can’t imagine the board CTO touching technology any more so then the other C-level executives in that board. And on the same token, I don’t believe the CTO in a small startup is anything more than a vacuous title haphazardly given to the first Co-Founder who isn’t the CEO. They are working on the core development no different then every other engineer there. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but it is clear that isn’t the same role. These can’t all be a CTO.

If we look at the executives at a business, board, squad, or whatever you call your team , at every level there needs to be accountability and diverse members with a deep skill set in one area (aka T-shaped). Fundamentally the team is accountable to shareholders, the board, an engineering director, a squad lead, or your customers. (Perhaps you have an interesting org and some of your are accountable to a government, the planet, or our species, but usually isn’t the case)

Who is your team?

The accountability has to be one entity/individual, so I would choose a word to define that Chief Accountable Officer or the CAO, other than that, you have an executive team with general skills, knowledge, and ability deep in one area. Since we are all technologists, let’s not have a CTO and instead focus on the areas we know best. Your team members will need expertise in the many areas you are responsible for, be it the business context, software development, architecture, innovation, finances, etc… While at the startup level this is less interesting, as knowing what you should be an expert in is most of the battle. At the board and business level it is a bit clearer.

Quickly googling around will enlighten you to the optimal team size, but that is a different topic. It comes to be 5±2, and that is a max of 7 people. 7 on a team, on your squad, in your board room. Using that a hard limit, what would you focus your expertise on? More recently I’ve heard more and more of Chief Product Officer, Chief Innovation Officer, as well as some intriguing other ones. There were Chief Human , Humor, and Happiness Officers, just as there could be a Chief Environmentalist Liaison , Chief AI Strategist , or Chief Data Analyst. Since I know my team are all expert technologists, I don’t really want to waste one of my team’s key positions on the *T* word.

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