What’s the Difference Between CIO vs CTO?

Nerd geekWhen talking to business managers, I often find confusion about the roles of technology leadership positions. CIO and CTO titles are frequently used interchangeably. Sometimes they only have a Director of Technology who reacts to “tech issues” when they come up. For the sake of clarity, I’ll offer my observation that Information Technology leaders tend toward one of two orientations: Internal business processes or external product development.

CIO is primarily internally-facing.

The CIO, or the Chief Information Officer, is a company’s top technology strategist who understands the business information needs of the company and the stakeholders of corporate operations. Maintains internal IT systems, including company information domains and business processes. Typically reports to the CEO on business models and vision issues, and collaborates with other business executives to learn their needs and develop new concepts. The CIO is a business person with IT experience.

A CTO is primarily customer-facing.

The CTO, or the Chief Technology Officer, is a company’s top engineer who most understands the science behind technology alternatives and frequently heads product research and development initiatives as they relate to the company’s current and future product offerings. Typically reports to the CIO or CEO (depending on corporate size and structure), and plans for technology evolution of the company systems. The CTO is a technology person having some familiarity with the company business model.

For what its worth, while I have experience in both roles, I am much more qualified for the CIO role.

What’s your take?

Do my descriptions match your understanding of the different roles? Do technology leaders in your organization participate at the highest levels of decision making? Does anybody know what they do at all?

Comments

  1. Ehab Amin says

    Hi Chris,
    I am currently enrolled in EMBA at NYU. Thinking baout my next career challenge considering my current experience as InformationTechnology Specialist and education at NYU. @ major role i am pursuing now. CIO or CTO, not sure what to pursue and based on what ?
    I know for sure i do not want to be involved in the Networking side, as much as the business side of IT and specially, servers virtualizations and future growth of IT within an organization.
    Which profile you think i can fit on the most? Please give me your insight or ask me any questions if there is anything unclear.

    Regards,
    Ehab Amin
    Information Technology Specialist
    BNP Paribas IP New York

    • says

      Hi Ehab,

      Yours is a good question, especially for one who is *capable* of going either way. The fact that you are an MBA candidate and you want to avoid “the networking side” suggests an ROI-driven path of a CIO. But your interest in “server virtualization” is a rather specific and complex discipline that might require the focus of a deliverables-driven technical leader possessing business acumen, like a CTO.

      What are you drawn toward? As an anecdote, if a CIO and CTO are going to a bookstore, the CIO will usually go to the Business section while the CTO will usually seek the Engineering/Technical sections. It breaks down to passion at this level, more than capability. Each will have already proven his or her self as a competent manager. A trap that many professionals fall into is getting really good at something they don’t love. The more skilled one becomes at something, the harder it becomes to jump out of that groove. It seems to me most never do. Far better, in my opinion is to become great at something you love to do and stay on track. Yes, you will have to pass on a lot of great opportunities, but I promise you’ll be much happier in the years to come. There is nothing worse than staring at your alarm clock every morning dreading the day ahead, even if you are well paid for it.

      From a pragmatic point of view, it is much easier to become a part of a technical team early in your career and work your way up the leadership ladder toward a CTO role. The path is easier to see. To become a CIO, you’ll need a broad spectrum of experience in various functional areas, e.g., Sales, Marketing, Accounting, Operations, etc. to earn the credibility you’ll need to work cooperatively with other department heads. This essentially undefined path is full of twists that can easily derail your long-term plans. However, that may be a good thing if you discover you are especially gifted in one of these other roles. (Hint: CTO-types generally abhor this sort of serendipity.)

      I’m not sure of how things work at Stern, but I’d suggest you take every opportunity to work on business cases. Lots of them… until the mental process becomes reflexive. The discipline to quickly identify a challenge and possible solutions and make a decision for how to proceed in 3 pages, is the most valuable skill — by far — I took from business school. Leadership in any form requires a willingness to make informed decisions with incomplete data. Get good at that, and you will go far in whatever direction you choose.

  2. Greg Beveridge says

    Christopher –
    Well said, regarding the respective CIO and CTO descriptions. I have some direct experience with the potential trap you explained in the second paragraph of your response to Ehab. During the five years of my consulting business as an expert witness, I became very effective at writing and responding to interrogatories and delivering testimony on the stand. It paid well, but I wound up hating every new “opportunity” and eventually stopped doing it altogether. On the plus side, the experience provided some incremental improvement in my ability to explain technical matters in such things as patent application specifications.

    Thanks!
    Greg Beveridge

    • says

      Thanks for commenting, Greg!

      Note: I asked Greg to weigh in as he offers a Fortune 50 perspective that I do not. Trust me: If he thought what I posted was different from his experience, he’d say so. :)

  3. kuldeep says

    Hi Chris,

    I’ve Computer Science and Engineering graduate and very much passionate about the technology. However, at the same time I want to pursue an MBA for gaining the business aspects and aligning my technological solutions in the business context. However, I’m a little bit confused about the CIO or CTO role in long term. With your note here, I feel CTO position attracts me more. How do you think an MBA would help me, in terms of required skills, to contribute and perform much better in CTO position ??

    • says

      Kuldeep,

      I think you ask a wise question, particularly regarding the long-term perspective. I have an MBA from a well respected school and, though I greatly improved my ability to quickly analyze diverse situations and choose a course of action, it’s difficult for me to evaluate the “value” of my business school education to improving my technical leadership. In fact, there is probably more value to *having* an MBA from a good school than earning one regardless of your career track. I have been surprised at how many people are really impressed by the degree. It opens doors and at a certain level of business leadership, I’ve found it to be the norm. Of course, the social network you develop can invaluable if you keep in touch with others destined to be business leaders.

      So, back to your question about the long-term value of an MBA to a CIO/CTO, it depends on your ambitions for leadership. For better or worse, presidents, partners, CEOs, investors and most of those who would hire you or evaluate you will understand and appreciate an MBA more than any technology-oriented credential or ability. Executives are aware that managing technology operations takes brains and skill. What you will have to impress upon them to reach top positions is that you can be relied upon to be accountable to the measures of success that they (and you) will be held to. An MBA goes a long way to demonstrating that beyond your technical abilities, you are a practical manager who can be relied upon to make rational (in a business sense) decisions and compromises.

  4. FabricioGR says

    Thanks for the explanation and matter of sense told me one of the 2 roles was more business oriented rather than tech oriented.

    Though I’m not completely out of the fog yet. Now if we need to break it down to the day to day chores in a company, which team members/profile go to which team? I mean, do the hard core developers go to the CTO and more of product Management, Project Managers , Business Intelligenes Analysis and other Tecnical+Business oriented roles go to the CIO team?

    Cheers

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