Who is CTO: Roles, Responsibilities, and Personas


Published: 07 Mar 2020


CTO Role and Responsibilities

Chief technology officer is a complex role that lies at the intersection of business and technology. A CTO is usually seen as a seasoned professional with a combined knowledge of a solutions architect, programmer, DevOps, team leader, and domain expert. The truth is that in a startup environment, the CTO often wears several hats. He or she is obliged to pick up the slack when there’s no opportunity to hire dedicated specialists. 

Knowing the nature of this position allows to shape an ideal portrait of a candidate to support you in your product creation journey. Let’s start!

Technologies within business: A CTO’s areas of focus

It’s important to understand the goal of this position within an organization is to ensure the technology strategy is aligned with business needs. Usually, a CTO plays a significant role in the following elements of business:

  • Technology innovation
  • Business transformation 
  • Leadership and management
  • IT operations 
  • IT transformation 
  • Optimization of IT infrastructure
  • Business operations 

Explained: What is a CTO?

A “T” in the abbreviation stands for technology, but what does this role actually entail? The description varies from company to company. Depending on the type of business and industry, company size, there’s a need to engage different persona types. 

We are basing our description of CTO personas on Russel Raynolds “Inside the Mind of the Chief Technology Officer” and Gartner’s “Understanding the 4 Common CTO Personas.”

Chief business-led technologies director

Retail, technologies, media, telecommunication, banking

Goal: to apply technologies to the main business functions, foster digital transformation. 

A position in the C-suite of a company overseeing several business and technology departments. This role is authoritative and especially relevant in our digitalized world. A person in this role is expected to build rapport with other executives to stay efficient handling the broad scope of responsibilities. 

Business Enabler

Tech product companies, tech startups

Goal: Operational management 

When an organization creates a tech product, this persona type stands at the helm of that product. This position is about ensuring that the product functions properly and stays relevant to the current market trends. In this case, a CTO manages a product engineering team and is responsible for operational technology. 

The Innovator

CIO vs CTO collaboration

Goal: to leverage disruptive technology, discover a new business model

As a technology visionary, this type focuses on leading the architects, innovation managers, and general IT specialists. As usual, this person is an executive, serving as a central point of IT innovations within an organization and often the right hand of a CIO. 

Chief operating officer

Sizeable organizations 

Goal: to drive the day-to-day IT operations 

In this case, the main responsibility of the CTO is to ensure IT services delivery that supports the business model is in place. This role aims to free up the CIO so that they can work at a strategic level of business. 

Regardless of their persona type, A CTO is on an important mission: ensuring that the organization’s technology fully serves its business strategy. Whether they work for an established organization or a startup, this remains essential for this role. 

What types of CTO can be found in startups?

When it comes to technology startups, there are three types of CTO.

Technical Lead (lead developer). The scope of responsibilities lies in the realm of solution architecture, team leadership, and software development. This type has a lot in common with a senior-level software engineer, who has experience in leading an engineering team.

Operational Lead (ex-project manager). This role focuses more on the business side of technology implementation, leaving the daily development tasks to programmers. Operational Leads are strong managers who set up a strategy and orchestrate the engineering effort within an organization.

Product owner. This often goes unnoticed, but a product owner can actually play the role of chief technology. Product owners know the ins and outs of the product, as well as the market and users and can turn this knowledge into a business benefit. Instead of managing, he or she guides an engineering team. Bottom line is that a product owner has a vision and excels at communicating it to the team members. 

Main responsibilities of CTO in startup

Startup CTO

A startup CTO drives the day-to-day development process. This distinguishes the startup CTO from their corporate counterparts, who aren’t involved in purely programming tasks.  

  • Shaping technology vision

After analyzing business goals, the CTO develops a technical strategy for the company. This step requires collaboration with co-founders in order to align the strategy with the business vision. To shape the vision, the CTO needs to combine the best of two worlds: technical skills and business acumen. 

  • Building an MVP 

The CTO is responsible for creating an MVP that can be to gain real-time user feedback as fast as possible. If one of the startup founders is a techie, they usually take on the role of a CTO. Otherwise, there’s a need to hire a dedicated specialist. This person will be responsible for a series of product iterations and they are accountable for the quality of the final product.

  • Quality Assurance

A dedicated Quality Assurance team is a rare sight in startups, especially at early stages. Testing is usually dispersed between team members, and it’s a CTO who needs to come up with the testing system. Besides, the CTO is probably the only person who knows an architecture well enough to test it meticulously. 

  • Attracting and mentoring talented developers 

The CTO handles interviewing, hiring, onboarding and training of engineers. Here having a strong network will be of help. They mentor tech talent who can be later trusted with critical functions, and they need to have the engineering expertise to evaluate technical knowledge. 

  • Tech stack

Basing on technical and commercial properties, the CTO suggests likely technical platforms to use on the project. The solution requires such considerations as the number of developers available, the cost of developers, the cost of the framework, deployment time, security, community support, and fitting for business vision. 

  • Updating architecture

In the early stages, the app’s architecture rests on the shoulders of the CTO. After creating the first versions of a product, there might be a point when an update of architecture is sorely needed. That said, CTO needs to handle the improvement process personally or hand this task over to a senior engineer. 

  • DevOps

Startups usually do without a DevOps specialist. In this case, a CTO steps into the shoes as a DevOps until they can hire a dedicated resource. In this role, the CTO manages domains and SSL certificates, sets up servers, databases, third-party tools, and ensures company-wide security. 

What qualities does a CTO need to possess? 

Thinking outside the box. This makes sense because technologies are constantly evolving, so the CTO must excel at finding new and better solutions and see how the company will evolve in the long run. 

Challenging the conventional wisdom. CTOs are able to rattle the status quo, take leadership, and see beyond traditional approaches.

Moving decisively towards business goals. Results-driven by nature, a CTO is a flawless executor with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Flexibility. Although a CTO may have some kind of technology “hunch,” the future may unfold in an unpredictable way. Developing an adjustable approach to any situation is one of the things that make a great CTO. 

CTO skills that guarantee to fare well in a startup 

CTO responsibilities

Technical knowledge

CTO is a key decision-maker who chooses the tech stack, programming language, and framework. Ideally, a candidate needs to have 10+ years of experience in the IT field. They need to know the ins and outs of the software development life cycle and are experienced to incorporate strategies to accelerate time-to-market. 

Technical leadership

A CTO needs to be able to provide leadership for the technical strategy in order to accomplish the goals of an organization. 

Communication skills

The ability to communicate the technology strategy to the engineering team, investors, and key stakeholders is important for this role. 

Strategic planning of technological resources

A CTO is expected to research and create strategies, improve an IT infrastructure and finetune an engineering team efforts to align with business priorities

Project management

An essential part of the CTO position – overseeing the flow of work, design stable processes using best practices and methodologies. 

Operational excellence

CTOs optimize operations by enabling agility, security, and reliance within ecosystems. The operating model developed by CTO is needed to bridge business and technology strategy. 

Sense of entrepreneurship

This role is critically important for delivering a competitive advantage by choosing the right technology that will engage customers.  

Mentorship and coaching

CTOs foster corporate culture by inspiring an engineering team to grow and develop. They should be actively involved in feedback and retention of team members. 

Future anticipation 

As an avid learner, a CTO continually researches trends in the IT industry, including innovative technologies and advises on the impacts of this technology in the long run. 

In summary

Startups hire CTOs to handle technology challenges during the software development life cycle. A chief technology officer job and goal is to foster the alignment between business goals with technology solutions. 

Hiring a CTO on-site can be a laborious process, let alone the sky-high cost for such an expert. The CTO salary in the United States is around $160K per year.

There’s always an option to outsource CTO-related responsibilities to our team at NCube. We can provide senior software developers,  tech leads, and DevOps specialists who could step in as your remote tech partners. Let’s talk?



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