Six Qualities of a World-Class CTO

By Jill Layfield Print this article Print

A CEO reveals the parameters of a recent talent search.

A superstar CTO will contribute to the success of any company, but is particularly important for an enterprise whose customer experience is enabled by technology. At Backcountry.com, an online retailer, we recently hired C.J. Singh as CTO, so the qualities that make a great CTO and the facets of a successful CEO-CTO relationship are top-of-mind.

Technology expertise would seem to be a CTO’s primary contribution, but it is only one among many intertwining responsibilities. As one of the most critical members of any executive team, the CTO should be expected to contribute strategy and counsel to the CEO. As head of the engineering department (called IT in many companies), the CTO must understand and support company strategy as it’s aligned with the mission and vision. He or she has to communicate that strategy clearly
and effectively, lead the team in implementing that strategy, and hold the team accountable to overarching company metrics.. On top of it all, the CTO needs to run a lean and efficient operation, keeping costs low, output high and the CEO happy.

A successful CTO must do the following:

1. Align to the Strategy. A good leader can work strategically in the best interests of the company as a whole. The best CTOs are competent strategists who don’t just focus on engineering initiatives but make decisions that align with the company’s overall vision. They will be able to communicate these decisions and the reasoning behind them to their team, while rallying support for the company’s goals. Sometimes objectives will overlap and sometimes they won’t. The CTO needs to be able to differentiate and execute only on what’s pertinent.

2. Contribute to the Innovation Discussion. Each department has different responsibilities and varying strengths, but each makes an integral contribution as part of a cohesive unit. Critical conversation among the leaders of each department is key to integration success. Obviously, the CTO must be able to clearly communicate from an expert engineering perspective, but he or she also must be able to hear and understand other points of view, concerns and needs with regard to the entire customer experience. Responsible communication will likely lead to innovation and should increase the reach and usability of the company’s technology.

3. Be Agile and Deliver Results. The CTO must lead the engineering department in a quick and creative response to necessary change, while keeping the company’s business goals clearly in sight at all times. The difference between a great engineering department and an ineffective one is agility and the ability to accomplish what is expected in a timely manner. A great team under a great leader will get the job done every time. The CTO must deliver results despite unforeseen obstacles and clearly communicate project status to both engineering employees and the executive team. Any unexpected and unnecessary lag time will have a negative impact on the whole company.

4. Be a Leader in Software Development and Scalability. For Backcountry.com, technology lends a competitive edge. Our CTO leads the charge in staying ahead of the curve, buying, integrating and building the software that differentiates our business from the competition and enhances the customer experience. The CTO also must ensure that all systems and software can scale to the demands of growth. The ability to focus and never lose sight of the basics is imperative.

5. Be Accountable via Unified Metrics. To run an efficient organization, the CEO and CTO must agree on metrics. Engineering team goals and the coinciding Key Performance Indicators should align with overall company aspirations (e.g., high conversion rate), system efficiency goals (e.g., fast page load) and availability standards (e.g., uptime). A mishmash of metrics indicates a miscommunication somewhere along the line. Lack of agreement could lead to misguided development, a rogue department and an inefficient business.

6. Run a Tight Ship. Despite high demands and the pressure to deliver the best of everything on time, CTOs must run an increasingly efficient engineering organization. Shrewd management of the business-within-the-business will ultimately result in better cash flow and higher earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) margins for the company as a whole.

There’s no doubt that complementary strengths and personalities make a better CEO-CTO relationship, but when it comes to the nuts and bolts of what works, basic expectations must be met. The CEO relies on the CTO to administer the technical intricacies of a business and to hone those intricacies to the objectives at hand. A superstar CTO will do that, but will also bring experience, knowledge, balance, accountability, management skills and business acumen to the executive roundtable.

There’s much more to a CTO than technology. A CTO is first and foremost a chief officer—a respected advisor and team-mate of the chief executive. The responsibility of the job is immense, and the importance of the relationship is undeniable.

Jill Layfield is the CEO of Backcountry.com, an online retailer of premium outdoor gear.   

This article was originally published on 2011-12-05
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