A superstar CTO will contribute to the success ofany company, but is particularly important for an enterprise whose customerexperience is enabled by technology. At Backcountry.com, an online retailer, werecently hired C.J. Singh as CTO, so the qualities that make a great CTO andthe facets of a successful CEO-CTO relationship are top-of-mind.
Technology expertise would seem to be a CTO?s primarycontribution, but it is only one among many intertwining responsibilities. Asone of the most critical members of any executive team, the CTO should beexpected to contribute strategy and counsel to the CEO. As head of theengineering department (called IT in many companies), the CTO must understandand support company strategy as it?s aligned with the mission and vision. He orshe has to communicate that strategy clearly
and effectively, lead the team in implementing that strategy, and hold the teamaccountable to overarching company metrics.. On top of it all, the CTO needs torun a lean and efficient operation, keeping costs low, output high and the CEOhappy.
A successful CTO must do the following:
1. Align to the Strategy. A good leader can workstrategically in the best interests of the company as a whole. The best CTOsare competent strategists who don?t just focus on engineering initiatives butmake decisions that align with the company?s overall vision. They will be ableto communicate these decisions and the reasoning behind them to their team,while rallying support for the company?s goals. Sometimes objectives willoverlap and sometimes they won?t. The CTO needs to be able to differentiate andexecute only on what?s pertinent.
2. Contribute to the Innovation Discussion. Each departmenthas different responsibilities and varying strengths, but each makes anintegral contribution as part of a cohesive unit. Critical conversation amongthe leaders of each department is key to integration success. Obviously, theCTO 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. Responsiblecommunication will likely lead to innovation and should increase the reach andusability of the company?s technology.
3. Be Agile and Deliver Results. The CTO must lead theengineering department in a quick and creative response to necessary change,while keeping the company?s business goals clearly in sight at all times. Thedifference between a great engineering department and an ineffective one isagility and the ability to accomplish what is expected in a timely manner. Agreat team under a great leader will get the job done every time. The CTO mustdeliver results despite unforeseen obstacles and clearly communicate projectstatus to both engineering employees and the executive team. Any unexpected andunnecessary lag time will have a negative impact on the whole company.
4. Be a Leader in Software Development and Scalability. ForBackcountry.com, technology lends a competitive edge. Our CTO leads the chargein staying ahead of the curve, buying, integrating and building the softwarethat differentiates our business from the competition and enhances the customerexperience. The CTO also must ensure that all systems and software can scale tothe demands of growth. The ability to focus and never lose sight of the basicsis imperative.
5. Be Accountable via Unified Metrics. To run an efficientorganization, the CEO and CTO must agree on metrics. Engineering team goals andthe coinciding Key Performance Indicators should align with overall companyaspirations (e.g., high conversion rate), system efficiency goals (e.g., fastpage load) and availability standards (e.g., uptime). A mishmash of metricsindicates a miscommunication somewhere along the line. Lack of agreement couldlead to misguided development, a rogue department and an inefficient business.
6. Run a Tight Ship. Despite high demands and the pressureto deliver the best of everything on time, CTOs must run an increasinglyefficient engineering organization. Shrewd management of thebusiness-within-the-business will ultimately result in better cash flow andhigher earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA)margins for the company as a whole.
There?s no doubt that complementary strengths andpersonalities make a better CEO-CTO relationship, but when it comes to the nutsand bolts of what works, basic expectations must be met. The CEO relies on theCTO to administer the technical intricacies of a business and to hone thoseintricacies to the objectives at hand. A superstar CTO will do that, but willalso bring experience, knowledge, balance, accountability, management skillsand business acumen to the executive roundtable.
There?s much more to a CTO than technology. A CTO is firstand foremost a chief officer?a respected advisor and team-mate of the chiefexecutive. The responsibility of the job is immense, and the importance of therelationship is undeniable.
Jill Layfield is the CEO of Backcountry.com, an onlineretailer of premium outdoor gear.