AKF Partners

Abbott, Keeven & Fisher PartnersPartners In Hyper Growth

Path to CTO/CIO

It’s that time of year again that a lot of companies are conducting annual performance reviews.  One question that we’ve heard often, albeit in various forms, is “what is the path to the top technology position in the company?” 

At a high level, the chief technology executive within a company is most often either someone who has proven him/herself in the technical ranks or someone who has proven him/herself in the business and has some technical acumen or knowledge.

Unfortunately, the path alone does not determine success and you can see this from the rate of turnover in chief technologists in so many companies.   The reason for this turnover we believe is that there are so very few chief technology executives out there with all the right skills, attributes and characteristics to make them successful in their job.  Success in their job is predicated on the ability to speak to both the business and to the technologists implementing the business through software and systems and in so doing to get the right things to happen to create shareholder wealth.

“Path” then is less important than the experiences that you gain along the way.  The right question is not how to get in the chief technology executive’s office, but how to get there and be successful such that you can make a positive difference in shareholder wealth.  Whether you come from primarily a business background or primarily a technology background we suggest that you have the following skills and/or experiences:

1)      Good knowledge of your business and of business in general.  This is important for several reasons, but the most important reason is your ability to communicate with and understand the needs of the business associates in marketing, product, etc.  You must be able to both understand what they are saying and be able to communicate in THEIR language.  You are the bridge to the technology and you should not expect that they are going to understand “engineer speak”.  While it’s not absolutely necessary that you get an MBA, it is generally a good idea that you take business classes and learn the basics of marketing and finance for example.  With respect to knowledge of your specific business, ideally you will have spent time as an engineering or product manager and/or time as an analyst, manager or individual contributor within one of the business units in your company.

2)      Great technical experience.  This is the one area that can truly test the capabilities of a business person-come-technologist without a technical degree or specific hands-on technical experience.  We’ll address this one more in future articles, but for the greatest chance of success we believe it is important that just as the chief technology exec needs to be able to speak the language of the business, so must they be able to speak the language of the technologists.  We recommend time as an individual contributor within one of the many areas of technology (software engineering, infrastructure, operations, QA, etc) as well as time managing more than one discipline within the team. 

3)      Great leader.  Too many of us fall down here quite frankly.  The aforementioned points really deal with one’s ability to communicate (i.e. that he/she “speak the right languages to the right constituents”).  But that alone really won’t get things done and won’t in and of itself create shareholder wealth.  The person needs to be able to motivate teams and inspire them to not only do the right thing but that thing the right way, in the right amount of time, with the right quality and at the right cost.  The leader needs to be morally and ethically beyond reproach within the workplace (read our future articles on whether you should accept vendor schwag) and put the needs of his/her team ahead of the needs of him/herself.

4)      Great manager.  Yes, the two (management and leadership) are very different.  The person should know how and what to measure and be capable of contributing to a team responsible for determining how to improve those measurements appropriately.  They need to be able to task manage and keep things on track.  When you think of management, think of things that a good project manager needs to do to ensure that a project comes in on time.  Also think of the things that you need to do to ensure that your people have the tools and equipment to do that which you are asking of them.

5)      Great communicator.  You have all the tools to be successful with the above pieces, but none of it is worth a damn if you can’t or won’t communicate.  You need to communicate to your teams, your boss, your peers and your customers.  Truth be told, you can’t communicate enough.  Even if you’ve told somebody something, they’ve likely forgotten it due to competing priorities.  You can’t get things done if you aren’t communicating – trust us on this point.

6)      Willing to let go.  This job isn’t about the decisions you make, or what magazines you get your picture on.  It’s about creating shareholder wealth and measuring the value of your TEAM – not you as an individual.  Park your ego at the door – it doesn’t have a place in this job.  Be willing to be wrong and always look to do the right thing – not the thing that is “your baby”.  Be a servant leader and do what’s necessary to get the right thing done in a morally and ethically correct fashion.  Team success, and not your individual contribution, is what is important here.

A good idea as part of your personal growth is to use the list above and score yourself as honestly as possible in terms of skills and experiences.  If you’re missing some of them make sure you have some goals in place that help you acquire a few more of these each year so that you know when you do arrive at the CTO position you will be one of the successful ones.