CTO vs CIO — does your business need one, the other, both or none

Author Petra Ignjatović
Category Company
Date Jun 29, 2020
9 min read

Even though the work of CTOs and CIOs is different, these two executive-level positions still cause a lot of confusion within the industry, and especially in companies that are looking to hire one or the other for the first time. With this blog, we’ll clear some of that confusion, show you what each of them is responsible for within the company and help you decide whether you need a CTO, a CIO, both of them or none.

Business landscape of today is extremely dependent on technology, so it’s no surprise that more and more companies are looking for leaders and top-level executives who are able to oversee all of the technological operations. When it comes to handling those tech operations on the C-level, two positions immediately stand out — Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and Chief Information Officer (CIO). But, as information and technology in a business setting usually go hand-in-hand, and since both of those roles manage technology within a company, the distinction between them (as well as their roles and responsibilities) can get a bit confusing.

To clear that confusion, let’s go over each of the positions and explain what falls within their scope of work.

What is a CTO

Chief Technology Officers are members of the executive team who are responsible for ensuring that a company’s product utilizes technology in a way that will meet the customers’ needs.

The role of CTOs revolves around researching and implementing advanced technology and solutions in order to continuously improve the products and services that a company is offering its customers and clients. In addition to that, CTOs often directly manage engineering and development teams who design and develop company’s solutions.
When it comes to the business aspect of a CTO’s work, one of their primary goals is to increase the overall company revenue by maximizing the innovation element of the products and services the company is offering its customers, while at the same time meeting their needs.

Responsibilities of a CTO

As C-level executives, CTOs have a wide variety of responsibilities within a company. We can divide them into two groups — general responsibilities and company-specific responsibilities.

GENERAL RESPONSIBILITIES:

  1. Being the face of the company’s external technology offerings
  2. Developing strategies for product designers, developers and engineers
  3. Constantly enhancing the technology that the company sells
  4. Collaborating with partners and development agencies in order to improve the company’s products and services
  5. Ensuring that the company’s technology, products and services are aligned with business goals
  6. Increasing company revenue by providing customers with top-of-the-line solutions

COMPANY-SPECIFIC RESPONSIBILITIES:

  1. Serving as the company’s top technology architect
  2. Running the company’s development and engineering teams
  3. Discovering new technologies that can be used to upgrade company products
  4. Helping departments within the company use technology profitably
  5. Supervising system infrastructure to ensure functionality and efficiency
  6. Building quality assurance and data protection processes
  7. Monitoring KPIs and budgets to assess performance and efficiency
  8. Improving and adjusting used technology based on stakeholder feedback

What is a CIO

Chief Information Officers are members of the executive team who are responsible for ensuring that a company leverages technology in a way that helps it optimize, improve and streamline internal processes.

Their role revolves around managing ongoing IT operations, mission critical systems and the overall security of a company’s IT infrastructure, as well as integrating advanced technological solutions into all business units within a company.

When it comes to the business aspect of a CIO’s work, one of their primary goals is to increase the overall company profitability by maximizing productivity of the company’s employees through the implementation of advanced tech solutions.

Responsibilities of a CIO

Just like with CTOs, the responsibilities of CIOs are also broad, and we can divide them into general responsibilities and company-specific responsibilities.

GENERAL RESPONSIBILITIES:

  1. Being the internal face of the company’s IT department
  2. Managing the company’s technology infrastructure and running all internal IT operations
  3. Focusing on tech requirements of company employees and business units
  4. Collaborating with partners and development agencies to acquire the best business solutions
  5. Aligning and deploying technology to streamline and improve internal business processes
  6. Increasing profitability by providing the company with effective operating solutions

COMPANY-SPECIFIC RESPONSIBILITIES:

  1. Creating strategies to increase the company’s bottom line
  2. Setting objectives for the company’s IT departments
  3. Designing tech systems and platforms to improve employee experience
  4. Planning the implementation of new tech systems and providing guidance to company employees
  5. Purchasing tech equipment and establishing partnerships with IT providers
  6. Monitor the company’s tech infrastructure to ensure optimal performance
  7. Monitoring tech advancements to discover new ways the company can improve its processes
  8. Analyze costs, value and risks of technology used within the company

CTO & CIO — head to head comparison

We covered the details in the previous sections, so let’s just conclude this initial part with a brief visual summary of the differences between these two positions.

                 CTO                                CIO
KEY FOCUS:       Improve company's products         Improve internal processes
RESPONSIBILITY:  IT operations and infrastructure   Dev teams and makers
CORE GOAL:       Increase revenue                   Increase profitability
MAIN DRIVE:      Maximize innovation                Maximize productivity
TARGET GROUP:    Company’s clients/customers        Company’s employees

OK, we covered the main part. Now, let’s give you something extra!

Who cooperates with partners and development agencies?

When it comes to cooperating with vendors, suppliers, external partners and development agencies, both the CTO and the CIO can be involved, but that depends on the type of project and the type of technology that the company they’re working for is looking for.

If a company wants to build or improve a solution they’ll be offering to their clients, customers or other users, it’s logical that the CTO, as the person best understands how to leverage technology in order to maximize the impact their solution needs to achieve with users, handles the cooperation with the development agency. On the other hand, if the solution is all about improving internal processes within the company, then the CIO is the person who should spearhead the cooperation.

Skills & prerequisites of each position

The roles of both CTOs and CIOs have historically been extremely focused on tech prowess, with a lot of CTOs and CIOs being former developers and engineers. But, the skills needed to be successful in these positions have now changed — a lot. Today, one of the most important prerequisites for being a CTO or a CIO is understanding the business aspect of managing a company along with all of the skills that are connected to it. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not like tech skills aren’t important… because they still are, but the meta has shifted from “you can be a CTO/CIO if you have tech knowledge” to “you can’t be a CTO/CIO if you don’t understand business”.

Instead of primarily being technologists, modern CTOs and CIOs are now taking the roles of business leaders and strategic thinkers who are expected to navigate the business landscape as easily as they navigate through technology.

This is the reason why more and more companies are looking for CTOs and CIOs skilled in a variety of categories, such as:

  1. organization
  2. leadership
  3. people management
  4. problem solving
  5. crisis management
  6. strategic thinking
  7. change management
  8. finance

Of course, not all of this is explicitly required for every CTO/CIO position and every company, but a strong mix of these skills coupled with business and tech knowledge is most certainly needed in order to be good in a CTO or a CIO role.

How do CTOs and CIOs work together

The short answer is — they should work well together… but that is sometimes a little more complicated. You see, when it comes to the topic of comparing CTOs and CIOs, one of the things that everyone wants to know is — who’s higher in the overall business hierarchy, who runs the show? CTOs usually think CIOs should report to them, and CIOs usually think that CTOs should report to them, but let’s be honest… in the end, they all report to the CEO and that’s what matters.

OK, all jokes aside, from a business perspective, you need these two positions and you need them to fit well together and cooperate — this leads to progress. The right way to approach this is to look at these positions as two sides of the same technology coin, a sort of a “buddy-buddy” relationship.

Just look at the big picture:

  1. if you’re looking to hire a CTO and a CIO, your overall goal is to use tech to improve both your company and the products you offer to your clients and customers
  2. people who are in charge of handling all tech operations (both external and internal) within your company will be the CTO and the CIO
  3. the better and stronger the cooperation between the CTO and the CIO, the faster will your company and your products improve

That is why the key goal of every company is to ensure that CTOs and CIOs can work well together, and that is done by:

  1. setting clear responsibilities for each of the positions, with as little overlapping as possible
  2. creating an environment of collaboration that will enable both positions to work towards the same higher goals (the mission and the vision of the entire company)
  3. putting an emphasis on transparency and openness between all employees, as that minimizes the feeling of competition and leads to company growth

Does your company need any or both

Now that you know more about each of these specific roles, the question is — does your company need a CTO, a CIO or maybe even both? To answer this question, you first need to take a look at your company’s overall state, plans and goals.

One of the first aspects that can affect this decision is the size of your company — smaller companies that need a CTO or a CIO usually end up having one person for both of those roles, while larger companies with a larger number of processes or tech products and services tend to have a specific person for each of the roles. It’s a simple story of — the larger and more complex the company or product, the more work there is for each of the roles.

Now, when it comes to choosing between a CTO and a CIO, you want to look at your company’s products, services and goals. While a majority of companies can benefit from having CIOs as they are the ones in charge of using technology to improve all internal processes (and every company has internal business processes), companies that can benefit from having a dedicated CTO are primarily ones that offer tech-related products or services to their clients and customers. For example, a large SaaS company can strongly benefit from having both a CTO to handle its product advancements, as well as a CIO to improve its internal processes, while a more traditional manufacturing company will certainly need a CIO if it wants to digitalize its business, but won’t really benefit from having a CTO as the product they’re offering to the market is not a technological one.

This is, of course, a generalization, and there are a lot more aspects you should consider before hiring a CTO or a CIO, but these ones will give you the right mindset and put you on the right path.

Frequently asked questions, also known as TL;DR version

#1 Is CTO and CIO the same?

Although both of these roles are handling the tech aspect within a company, they are not one and the same. CTOs handle the external part by using tech to ensure that the product a company is offering to its clients is constantly improving. CIOs, on the other hand, handle the internal part by using tech to ensure that a company’s internal processes are at an optimal level.

#2 What does the CTO do?

CTOs are a company’s main technology architects — this means they are in charge of deciding how a company’s product will be built in order to ensure success among consumers. CTOs often manage engineering and development teams who design the products and services, evaluate their functionalities and work on their continuous improvement.

#3 What does the CIO do?

Generally speaking, the CIO makes sure that a company’s technology investments are aligned with its strategic business objectives. People in this position apply technology and various digital products as means of optimizing and streamlining internal business processes — all with the goal of maximizing day-to-day efficiency and productivity within the company.

#4 Do you need a technical background to be a CTO or a CIO?

Although technical backgrounds are not a prerequisites for either of the positions, technical knowledge is still very important and highly beneficial for both roles.If we were to put them side by side, due to the nature of their work, CTOs would have a much larger need for tech skills than CIOs.

#5 Do you need a business background to be a CTO or a CIO?

Yes, a background in business is extremely beneficial for both positions, but if we were to compare them, due to the nature of their work, CIOs would have a much larger need for business skills than CTOs.

#6 What skills does a CTO need?

For a CTO, technical depth and understanding of business is very important, but there are also a variety of other skills a good CTO needs to master. Some of them are strategic thinking, communication, customer service, security management, leadership, problem-solving, decision-making and technical planning.

#7 What skills does a CIO need?

In addition to being able to navigate through the business and tech landscape, CIOs as top-level executives need to be highly proficient in a variety of skills. Some of the most important are relationship-building, communication, leadership, crisis management, change management, strategic thinking, finance and vendor management.

#8 Can one person be both a CTO and CIO?

Yes, hybrid CIO/CTOs are not rare, but they are usually just a short-term solution. The amount of work that CTOs and CIOs handle (especially in today’s business environment that is extremely reliant on technology) is massive, so having one person do both jobs will only stall your company’s progress in the long run.

#9 Should you hire a CTO or a CIO?

If your goal is to use technology in order to improve your internal processes, hire a CIO. If you want to improve products you’re offering to clients or customers, hire a CTO.

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