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The chief technology officer is the top of the software engineering career ladder, but there are many routes to reaching the position.

A chief technology officer (CTO) is the technology function’s representative in the C-suite. They are ultimately responsible for how technology can be used to drive an organization forward. 

The CTO job is one of the top destinations an ambitious engineer can reach as they climb their way up the corporate ladder into management. It’s a job that won’t involve much actual engineering on a day-to-day basis, but it’s a great fit for those with a strong sense of how technology could dovetail with their company’s goals.

CTO job description

The CTO is typically one of the most senior technology leaders within an organization. They develop the policies, procedures, and vision for how the company will use technology to improve the products and services it offers. A CTO needs to understand technology from a business perspective, and will make important decisions about major technological projects within the company.

Of course, jobs with the same title can vary significantly from company to company. That’s particularly true with the CTO. In smaller companies, they may sit alone atop the tech pyramid, while in larger organizations they will likely share the C-suite with a Chief Information Officer (CIO).

CTO vs CIO: Where does the CTO sit within an organization?

The distinctions between these two jobs is an important one, and helps illuminate what a CTO does.

The CTO is often in charge of research and development, product engineering, and formulating the technical architecture on which the whole company will be built. They think about technology in terms of how it can benefit the company’s customers, and how it can boost revenue and increase sales. A CIO, by contrast, is more focused on the technology which a company runs on, including core email, file storage, process automation, and data processing and analysis systems.

As noted, these distinctions aren’t necessarily hard and fast, and will depend on the company and people involved. Not every company has people in both positions. In many startups, the technical founder might take the CTO title because so much of a startup’s energy is put into developing a viable product, but by necessity they also take charge of the company’s internal IT needs as well. In this scenario, the creation of a separate CIO role is a sign of corporate maturity, a recognition that the company has reached such a size and complexity that it needs separate inward and outward facing executives. 

The relationship between the CIO and CTO can also vary quite a bit between companies. Probably the most common arrangement is for a CTO to report to a CIO. But the opposite scenario isn’t unheard of, and it’s also possible that both will serve as equals within the C-suite.

CTO roles and responsibilities

Hopefully that’s given you a sense of what the CTO’s job entails. There are a number of big picture roles that a CTO fulfills. These overlap and not every CTO will fill all of these roles, but they define the job in broad strokes:

  • Strategic planning – CTOs often take the lead in setting an overall technology strategy and envisioning how technology can be used across the company. This is a forward-looking aspect of the job, establishing the future direction of the company’s technological initiatives and infrastructure. The CTO will need to keep abreast of new technologies and trends in the industry, even if they’re not involved in day-to-day engineering.
  • Customer contact – CTOs may take an active role in working with customers so they can understand what technologies are best suited for the company’s target market. The CTO also helps deliver IT and other technological projects to market, which involves product design and engineering work.
  • Thought leadership – A true thought leader takes the previous two roles to the next level, analyzing target markets and developing business models in order to understand what role tech can play in a company’s future, and staying ahead of the competition.

In companies that don’t have a separate CIO role, a CTO may also be expected to oversee corporate infrastructure, with authority over corporate data, security, networking, and so on.

Specific tasks and responsibilities that typically involve the CTO may include: 

  • Managing senior engineering managers to ensure the function is performing effectively.
  • Researching the latest technologies and trends and how they might mesh with the company and its future vision.
  • Establishing goals for the company’s research and development efforts and ensuring they are resourced effectively to achieve them.
  • Developing and executing strategies for improving productivity and output involving new technologies.
  • Ensuring that employees can use the company infrastructure in a way that furthers corporate goals and boosts profits.
  • Evaluating current technical infrastructure, assessing the needs for new systems, and deciding when to build and when to buy software.
  • Developing and implementing data protection and quality assurance (QA) programs.
  • Making sure stakeholders and employees understand and are on board with corporate technology strategy and priorities.
  • Implementing tech projects that seek to improve customer experience and satisfaction.
  • Mentoring employees and managers to ensure smooth technical rollouts.

How to become a CTO

As should be clear by now, a CTO is a demanding job for highly qualified candidates. In order to carry out all the responsibilities we’ve discussed, you’ll need to develop various core skills:

  • Tech skills – This goes without saying. Anyone who expects to be a CTO will have a strong technology background. You might not be doing any coding in your day-to-day work, but you’ll need to have the knowledge necessary to understand what technology can do and where it’s going next.
  • Business skills – You’ll need a thorough understanding of your company’s business domain so you can correctly apply those technology skills.
  • Leadership skills – As CTO, it’s likely that you’ll be overseeing many teams and managers across the organization. You need to know how to inspire, mentor, hire, and delegate to make this work.

Candidates for a CTO job will be expected to have acquired these skills both through formal education and in the workplace. A bachelor’s degree is considered essential and those with C-suite ambitions may wish to go further: a master’s degree in computer science or technology management can help you stand out. As many CTO roles have an external, customer-facing focus, the sales and marketing elements of an MBA may also be considered valuable.

But most importantly, a CTO job is the culmination of a technology career, and thus only those with an extensive on-the-job engineering and management track record should apply for one. The general rule of thumb is you need 10 to 15 years of experience under your belt before you should apply for such a senior role.

CTO salary expectations in 2024

As part of the C-suite, CTOs are among the highest-compensated employees within any organization, though as always you can expect a wide range of salaries depending on experience, industry, and geographic location. Pulling from some publicly available sources, here’s what you can expect in terms of pay in 2024:

  • According to Glassdoor, in the United States, the average compensation for a CTO is $276,000, with around $160,000 of that being base salary and the rest additional pay in the form of bonuses, stock grants, and so on. That average is part of a typical range that can go from $207,000 on the lower end to $387,000 on the high end.
  • In the United Kingdom, compensation is lower. According to Glassdoor: the median pay is £124,000, in a band that ranges from £88,000 to £177,000. 
  • That’s not too far off from what you’d make in Germany: Payscale pegs the average there at €109,000, with an expected band ranging from €71,000 to €205,000.
  • If you’re looking for a CTO role down under, the average pay in Australia in this role is A$200,000, according to Glassdoor. That can dip down to A$150,000 and go up to A$250,000.
  • If you’re interested in an engineering management job in India’s burgeoning tech industry, Glassdoor says you can expect an average pay of around ₹3,000,000, but that’s part of a wide typical range that can run from ₹1,000,000 to ₹5,000,000. 

The CTO job represents the pinnacle of an engineering management career track, and that means it can be rewarding both monetarily and through job satisfaction. Good luck in making this move in your career.