I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with many Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) lately. All have been very bright individuals and I love living in a city this dense with smart technologists who are willing to be so collaborative.

I am noticing a trend in two general types of CTO:

  1. The engineering master
  2. The general generalist

Particularly in product or app driven companies, the CTO role is filled by an early engineer who is very good at writing software and scaling the engineering culture. The general generalist is usually a good engineer but has had a lot of experience in other areas of technology.

Having broad technology experience, as in the case of the general generalist, makes for a technology leader who is better able to scale the organization.

Qualities of The General Generalist

The General Generalist is able to lead in at least three capacities in their role as the company’s chief technologist:

  1. Software engineering
  2. Internal IT, networking
  3. Data

These abilities are in addition to having a strong business background. A CTO must be able to contribute to developing the strategy of the business. Big impacts in this area are key to being an effective CTO versus an outstanding technologist.

Engineering Leadership

Software engineering has become more dominant in the success of businesses in the last ten years or so. While it’s still relatively difficult to hire great engineering talent, there is a cadre of individuals with very strong backgrounds in engineering.

To be a successful CTO leading engineering, the leader must be familiar with the engineering practices that will create competitive advantages with the culture of their company. Engineers write high quality and well tested code with a strong review process and simple release schedule. Appreciating and fostering these skills within the organization is an important leadership trait required to be an effective CTO.

My own background is in engineering, and I think many CTOs today excel at this aspect of their role. Engineering is only one facet of leading the business. Even when the principle product is an app of some kind, the business will have to scale. A CTO who only has experience in engineering will struggle with other aspects of whole company leadership like scaling the internal team.

Internal IT Leadership

Scaling the internal team applies to the engineering team but also the technology requirements of scaling the marketing, art and finance departments. To be really effective as a CTO means to be effective in leading the technology requirements of the internal office. In this sense, it also means leveraging technology to make internal processes efficient.

Laptops, file sharing and effortless remote collaboration all contribute to lowered overhead and fall squarely in the realm of CTO responsibility.

Many CTOs I know hate this aspect of technology and want to just have it take care of itself. I understand this view, but excelling in providing leadership in this area is a key difference in the VP Engineering and CTO. Both are executive level roles, but the VP is slightly more specialized.

Managing the internal technology requirements is opportunity for creating competitive advantages for your company.

Data Leadership

An emerging trend for companies is to build data driven experiences. For many companies, managing and integrating data is a new competency and requires a lot of technical systems. For this reason, data wrangling (and sometimes data science) is a responsibility of the technology group of the organization.

The ability to lead decision making with data and leverage data across the whole organization is probably a major differentiator in good and amazing CTOs these days. I predict this trend will change over time and managing data will become table stakes for CTOs of the future.

New technologies are emerging that manage, transform and report on data. CTOs should be aware of these technologies and leverage them to drive value in their businesses.


The size of the company often comes in to play when considering a CTO. Indeed internal IT and data concerns can fall into the realm of the chief information officer. While this is true of large organizations (CIOs aren’t usually hired in small or medium companies), I still think being able to lead these initiatives is an important quality of being a good CTO.

Other qualities that are important to a CTO that I haven’t elaborated on in this article but are nonetheless important (and probably deserving of their own blog post):

  1. Fostering a strong technology culture
  2. Communicating your company’s tech culture to the public
  3. Having an appreciation of the concerns outside the technology department
  4. Identifying changes in the business and technology landscape and creating opportunities within the company
  5. Business acumen like reading and managing profit & loss and balance sheet reports

The End

Competencies of CTOs have expanded and will continue to do so. It’s one of the many reasons that leading technology is so invigorating.

As always, tweet @brycemcd with thoughts comments and alternative viewpoints.