What is a CTO?

What exactly is a CTO? Yes we all know it is the Chief Technical Officer of a company, but what truly does a CTO do? For what job description and duties, are you hiring said CTO? As a role, the CTO job is rather open ended, and vague. It lacks a defined role. So, as the founder, the leader, or the CEO / board member, what roles are you going to give the CTO?

According to one of my Professors here at Princeton, there are four types of CTOS:

1) The Executor: This is the CTO that can execute on an idea like nobody’s business. They are efficient at being the optimizer, and can effectively optimize the employees to work as hard as possible. This is the man you need if you need someone to help march your troops forward and get something accomplished quickly and effectively.

2) The Strategist: Imagine a general at a battlefield, trying to understand the best way of attacking the enemy. That is exactly what this type of CTO does. This CTO is the one who can mastermind a victory, and is always thinking 4 or 5 chess moves ahead. If you find yourself amongst an amalgamation of competitors, you might want to find your perfect general.

3) The Visionary “Steve Jobs” CTO: This is the guy who can see your current technology and build a plan for how the product should look, and how the market will look in two to three years. This is the man that makes your products seem ahead of the curve, not behind them. The visionary CTO is the one that can change the direction your technology product line takes. My intuition tells me that this is the hardest type of CTO to find. Most people are decent at most of the other areas, but being a visionary is something you either have or don’t. Not everyone can read the crystal ball.

4) The Chief Talking Officer: This is the guy who can understand your technology and make it accessible to the media, to your partners, and to your customers. This is the man that makes it possible for your customers to understand the difference between you and your competitors. This guys is the communicator.

Now, what do I think a CTO is?

For me, I find that the CTO is a position that is fluid, and the definition of the role changes with the stage of the company. Early on, the CTO will be the man leading the technological development, the hiring of engineers, and the progression of the product. After the initial product offering has been accepted by the market, the CTO role changes into becoming a voice in the business operations for the dev team. I think that the CTO is the dev team’s representative in the meeting of big honchos. As the company grows to maturity, the CTO becomes the CEO’s right hand man. If a company was a drug cartel, than this would be the man next in line.


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