How to Become a CTO: Responsibilities, Qualifications, and Career Tips

Ready to become a CTO? In most cases, that’s the pinnacle of a tech professional’s career and there are a lot of challenges to get there. From identifying what degrees or certifications you need to figuring out what position you should hold next, you’re going to overcome a lot as you aspire to that executive status.

You can do it. We believe in you. We even put together this guide with the answers to every question you might have.

We’re going to break down the steps of how to become a CTO, take a look at the skills you must possess, and show you how choosing certain education paths over others will deliver the biggest advantages in your career. 

Read on to indulge that inner strategist and get planning the next big step in your career. 

What is a CTO?

A chief technology officer (CTO) is an executive-level position that oversees all of the technology that an organization uses. His or her primary responsibility is to make sure that the hardware and software an organization uses are secure, helpful, and supports business effectively. 

Sometimes known as a Chief Technical Officer, or Chief Technologist, it’s among the highest-ranking IT positions in business. A CTO keeps pace with technological advances, then uses their executive powers to make decisions and investments that further the objectives of the company to stay competitive in the 21st century. 

For example, organizations bring a CTO on board during or immediately following digital transformation. This process sees the wholesale digitization or update of business processes and may change the way a company is organized. It requires the oversight of a professional who can plan and execute such a process, in addition to identifying whether a technological solution is appropriate, cost-effective, and helps the organization meet its goals in the long run.

The CTO vs. the CIO

CTOs typically work with CIOs (Chief Information Officer), but the roles aren’t the same. A CIO typically has a much more hands-on role in the IT department. For example, they may work directly with IT staff to innovate and develop solutions that keep things running on a daily basis. 

In contrast, the CTO is much more business minded. They will make decisions regarding the overarching technological infrastructure. (The CTO is considered one of the three heads of engineering leadership in a corporation.)

In the example of digital transformation, a CTO may develop the overall plan for upgrading a company’s technology in a way that will help the company adapt to the future. A CIO may handle the details on the ground-level, overseeing the implementation of specific technology. 

The Career Outlook for CTOs: Necessary and In-Demand

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, computer and information system management occupations are growing by about 12 percent annually (that’s twice the average growth rate for all occupations). This category includes CTOs, who are becoming increasingly desirable in corporate leadership. 

Technology is increasingly taking a front and center role in business, making technological disruption both a threat and opportunity for any organization – and they’re taking note. According to The 2020 State of IT report by Spiceworks, 44 percent of companies have increased their budget for technology in 2020, compared to just 38 percent in 2019. That trajectory is expected to continue through 2025. 

Despite this, most companies do not consider themselves prepared for the major technological shifts already occurring in the world. A survey by McKinsey found that as much as 79 percent of North American companies consider themselves “not ahead of the curve” when it comes to such shifts. 

All of that puts CTOs in demand – big time. According to McKinsey, every company needs one if it wants to adapt, innovate, and thrive.

What Does It Earn? CTO Salary Statistics

CTOs are valued in their company, and it shows. 

According to PayScale, the average salary for a CTO in 2020 was $159,419. Salaries compiled by Glassdoor generally concur but note that some executives earn as much as $240,000 per year. 

CTO Responsibilities & Roles

According to Gartner, four different “types” of CTOs exist. They are:

  • The Digital Business Leader: The person who emphasizes digital business strategies over manual ones.
  • The Business Enabler: The person who ensures the technology operates as intended.
  • The IT Innovator: The forward-looking person who leads the company in staying competitive by using technology. 
  • The Chief Operating Officer of IT: The person who helps keep it all running (often working with a CIO). 

Those “types” overlap with each other and even with the role of the CIO. That often leads to job descriptions full of vague descriptions of key duties – it’s not uncommon to see the CTO role tasked with responsibilities such as “driving innovation” or “identifying disruptive technologies.” 

Those descriptions aren’t super helpful for those of us unraveling how to become a CTO. However, understanding what these job descriptions hint at can help us build a plan of action to eventually land the position.

Ultimately, it’s the CTO’s duty to align technology with organizational goals. A solid executive bridges the business and technology worlds to help a company move forward. Depending on the company, a CTO may find themselves accomplishing that by: 

  • Leading technology teams for a variety of goals.
  • Managing technological research and development.
  • Planning and implementing infrastructure.
  • Working with the CIO to enact a digital transformation.
  • Allocating resources and overseeing funding for technology investments.
  • Guiding strategic business decisions from a technological standpoint.
  • Monitoring technology management and conducting reviews or audits.
  • Overseeing technology compliance requirements.
  • Engaging in thought leadership. 
  • Brainstorming customer-focused technology solutions. 

The Most Critical Skills for a CTO

The range of responsibilities and roles a CTO may fulfill demands an array of hard and soft skills. You’ll need to demonstrate technical expertise while proving you are versed in business skills and leadership. Here’s a closer look at each.

Technical Skills for a CTO

A CTO needs a strong grasp of a range of technologies. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that most CTOs possess around 15 years of experience in the IT field before even being considered for the job. Likewise, many CTOs start out as engineers in their chosen field, working their way up the ranks. 

Either way, expect to require competencies in topics that may include:

  • Cybersecurity and information security management
  • Network architecture
  • Big data engineering and architecture
  • The Internet of Things
  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning
  • Industry-specific disruptive technologies

CTO Business & Management Skills

On the day-to-day scale, a CTO may find themselves engrossed with activities related to business management. That’s because they’re tasked with making decisions that will fundamentally impact the company’s future. To ensure those decisions are sound, CTOs need a firm foundation in the following: 

  • Finance, statistics, and marketing. Like all executive-level professionals, a CTO will read reports and business documents, make financial decisions regarding resource allocation, and use metrics to track the success of an initiative. These are core business skills that directly affect the success of a company.
  • Strategic and visionary thinking. CTOs are concerned with top-level business strategy. They help drive the company into uncontested market spaces where they possess the greatest advantage.
  • Data-driven decision-making. A CTO should know how to apply insights from data and statistics to plan and execute decisions. 
  • Team management and leadership. Working with teams represents a core responsibility for any CTO. A solid grasp on organizational behavior and team management facilitates success.
  • Communication and diplomacy. While much of the CTO’s duties will focus on customer-centric technology initiatives, skills such as negotiation are also critical.  A CTO can expect to manage vendors, meet the needs of external key stakeholders, and occasionally work with clients or customers directly.

Who Will the CTO Manage? Positions Under Their Supervision

Although the CTO executes plans and initiatives at a top-level, they’re also sometimes the head of a department or active participants on task forces. Expect to manage:

  • Software architects
  • Senior developers
  • DevOps engineers
  • System administrators
  • Security specialists

Talent management is often one of the biggest challenges for CTOs. For example, the connection between a CTO and software development might not always be obvious. Unless the CTO demonstrates strong technical leadership, engineers or developers may create challenges during project management, especially if they’re accustomed to operating a certain way. 

The Steps to Become a CTO: An Executive Career Path

Becoming a CTO is no small feat, but with the right education and experience, it’s attainable. Generally, anyone who wishes to become a CTO will need to: 

1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

A four-year degree in a computer science-related field will lay the technical foundation for becoming a CTO and give you that critical entry into a preferred industry or field. 

2. Gain Relevant Work and Industry Experience

All CTOs boast strong technical skills as well as deep industry insight. For most, that develops over a decade or longer – very often at the same company or within the same industry. For those just starting out:

  • Take on projects at your job that allow you to expand your skills and leave you with demonstrated expertise on your resume.
  • Consider leadership opportunities on special teams and projects as they arise.
  • Embrace continued education through certifications, regular training, and courses applicable to not only your technical specialty, but also business.

(Also consider joining a career network to start developing the connections you’ll need.)

3. Pursue a Master’s Education

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, C-level executives increasingly have master’s degrees. A 2019 study from MIT found that over 50 percent of respondents had a master’s degree or higher. Business-related degrees are among the most popular, followed by public administration, law degrees, and occasionally, liberal arts.

4. Take Steps to Prepare for an Executive Position

Consider things like social media presence, civic involvement, digital brand, and other features that can reflect well or poorly.

Education Requirements for a CTO

Quantic CTO, Ori Ratner received a timely heads-up about a business education for technical specialists: “Early on, one of my mentors suggested that developing a sense of ‘business acumen’ would be just as important as growing my technical skillset.”

Imagine being a software engineer for a startup, and you walk into a meeting with an angel investor to give a presentation on an app your team is developing. When the conversation turns towards financials and business growth, you’re lost. What happens if there are follow-up questions within this new context? 

The higher you move up the ranks of a company, the more likely you’ll face situations that require skills and knowledge outside of your technical expertise. From managing horizontal teams to deciphering marketing lingo, get ready to evolve your skillset if you intend to take it to the next level. 

Here’s a closer look at what education a professional requires to be considered for the CTO role.

What Degrees and Certifications Do CTOs Have?

According to Indeed, CTOs typically hold numerous degrees and certifications. These include:

  • A bachelor’s degree in a technology field. 
  • Industry-specific software certifications such as Certified ScrumMaster or Google Developers Certification.
  • Project management certifications such as CompTIA Project+ or PMI Agile.
  • An advanced degree.

When the position of CTO gained prominence in the early 2000s, it was estimated by InfoWorld Magazine that around 12 percent of them held advanced degrees. By 2019, research from MIT suggested this trend has reversed, with most CTOs holding master’s degrees or higher. Among the most common master’s degrees for CTOs, however, include:

  • Computer Science
  • Information Technology
  • Information Technology Management

Shane Emmons | CTO @ TeamSnap

Why an MBA is a Smart Move for the Future CTO

Like our CTO said, developing business acumen sooner rather than later can give you a major leg up in your career.

An advanced degree in business can provide a competitive edge when pursuing the CTO position. Besides strong technical skills and deep industry knowledge, a CTO must demonstrate the ability to bridge the technical and business worlds. An MBA does exactly that.

We’ve also found that many professionals initially overlook the value of an MBA. Many potential CTOs start with a technical background with the intent of becoming an engineer or other specialist. It may not have occurred to them to seek out business, finance, or marketing education. However, without these holistic business credentials, it can be difficult – if not impossible – to move into the upper echelons of a company’s management. Notable CTOs with an MBA

What to Consider when Choosing an MBA Program

There’s a lot to weigh when making the decision to return to school. While pursuing an MBA is certainly a commitment, doing it without quitting work is paramount for any professional in a technology field. Some questions individuals might consider include:

  • Is the program flexible enough to continue working full time? Unlike other fields, STEM professionals don’t have the luxury of putting a career on hold to pursue an MBA.
  • Is the program broad enough to cover several skills? Many technology specialists return to school because they’re lacking the business skills they need to advance professionally.
  • Are online options available? Online courses can eliminate burdens on a schedule and improve access to education.
  • Is an executive MBA appropriate? An EMBA lets professionals develop their leadership skills beyond what an MBA will offer.
  • Is the program in touch with current technology? Programs that reflect a technology-driven future will best prepare their participants.

How to Become a CTO with an Online MBA

Finding the time to get the knowledge and credentials to move forward can be tricky, but that’s where an online MBA shines. An online MBA can:

  • Deliver the information in a way that works for you. Whether business administration from a technical background without the vocabulary or tackling your greatest achievement, a good program will meet you where you are. 
  • Promote holistic business and leadership skills. Enjoy a well-rounded education that promotes long-term professional growth by exposing you to topics you might not have considered. 
  • Inspire networks and connections. Take advantage of the digital space to create a network to draw upon and connect with other professionals. 

Summary: Which Degree is Best for Your Career Growth?

As more and more companies embrace sophisticated technology, the position of CTO is growing in prominence. We’ve taken a closer look at what it takes to become one, and what sort of education potential executives can expect to pursue.  

The long road to becoming a CTO requires planning – it doesn’t happen overnight. However, with the right combination of skills and credentials, it lies within your reach.