Case Studies

CIO or CTO—What’s in a Title?

Understanding the roles and responsibilities of your top IT executives

By Minda Zetlin

May 2010

“CIO stands for ‘Career Is Over.’ CTO stands for ‘Career Taking Off!’” So declared one CIO-turned-CTO recently. Many chief information officers (CIOs) and even some chief technology officers (CTOs) would probably disagree. But a closer look into these two titles reveals that whereas the CIO role is pretty clearly established after being in common use for at least 30 years, the newer CTO title means completely different things from industry to industry, and even company to company. And as technology becomes more central to more organizations, CTOs are gaining in both recognition and power.

In many large organizations, the CIO is still at the top of the career ladder for a technology-oriented employee. But in some situations, the CTO may command more authority, get more of the CEO’s attention, and even be paid more than the CIO. How can today’s technology leaders make sense of this confusion?

Top Line or Bottom Line?
One aspect of these two titles that everyone agrees on is that the CTO focuses on technology, especially new technology that can help an organization function more efficiently or go to market more effectively. Tom Silver, North America senior vice president for Dice, a job listing Website for technology professionals, says technology is really a CTO’s first love. Silver says CIOs are often farther away from new developments in technology, focusing more on business management and spending more time on how that technology can be applied.

By comparison, the CTO may have little to do with the operations of the business or its finances. “A few years ago, I signed off on a pretty complicated technological delivery,” recalls Andy Mulholland, global CTO for Capgemini. “I remember asking a pretty senior executive if he had confidence in my decision. He answered that he had complete confidence in my technical decision-making, although he wouldn’t trust me with his lunch money.”

Contrast this with the typical role of the CIO, who usually oversees a much larger staff than a CTO does and must balance concerns about budget as well as governance and compliance issues. “I really enjoy the operational—the day-to-day and business—components of my role,” says Josh McArthur, CIO for North America at Capgemini. “I get a good balance between the two: focusing on new technology and keeping my hands on things operationally.”

On the other hand, a highly skilled CTO may not need to learn management skills, says John Stevenson, president of JG Stevenson Associates and formerly CIO at Dr. Pepper/Seven Up, CIO of the Pharmaceutical Group at Bristol-Myers Squibb, and CIO for the Americas at Sharp Electronics. “Your management inadequacies will be forgiven if you’re developing something that will make the company millions.”

Asked to compare the two roles, McArthur notes, “The CTO focuses on the top line, and the CIO focuses on the bottom line.”

The Changing CTO Role
With CTOs focusing more on technology and less on day-to-day operations, one might expect them to have much less direct contact with business executives than CIOs do. This used to be true, but in today’s world, where technology is increasingly important, that dynamic is shifting. “Traditionally businesspeople would say to IT, ‘I have this problem. How are you going to solve it?’” Mulholland says. “Today, a much more common statement is, ‘You tell me how I can innovate.’”

The snag, he says, is that many IT departments are unprepared to engage in that dialogue. “IT’s answer is, ‘Tell me what you want to do, and I’ll tell you how to do it.’”

A good CTO can step into that breach. Mulholland says small, relatively quick changes in technology can increasingly make a big difference to a company, and CTOs can help other executives understand the impact of these innovations. “The CTO becomes the interpreter of new possibilities to the business leadership, whereas the CIO has overall responsibility for managing the IT environment,” he explains.

Photography by Shutterstock