So You Want to Be a CTO

In January 2001, three stories by Computerworld US mentioned a chief technology officer, or CTO. In January 2003, 26 stories did. The CTO is clearly becoming more common, but it's a difficult role to pin down. CTOs can be technology gurus, visionaries, infrastructure experts or policy enforcers, and contrary to popular belief, they don't usually work for the CIO.

"If you talk to six people, you'll get six definitions of the CTO," says John J. Davis, president of John J. Davis & Associates Inc., an IT executive search firm in New York.

To get a feel for what CTOs are really about, it helps to look not only at their work, but also at the human and financial dynamics around them.

Although the role is becoming more common, CTOs are found in only 37% of companies, according to a 2002 survey of several hundred midsize to large companies by Cutter Consortium in Arlington, Mass. The CIO may be involved in recruiting and hiring the CTO, but most CTOs report to another senior executive, such as the CEO or the chief financial officer, and they fill a variety of roles.

In large companies, the CIO's increasing emphasis on business -- often on a worldwide scale - may leave no one minding the IT store, Davis says. In those cases, the CTO is brought in to keep an eye on infrastructure and technology.

That's the situation at Foster City, Calif.-based Inovant Inc., where Scott Thompson is in the process of hiring a CTO. "When you're running a big global business, there are a lot of [infrastructure] decisions that have to be made on a daily basis," explains Thompson, who is executive vice president for technology solutions and de facto CIO at the wholly owned transaction-processing subsidiary of Visa International Inc.

"My job is about translating business plans into technology priorities and creating that constant linkage back to the business and the strategy of the business," he explains. "That translates into a series of initiatives and projects and a development agenda."

In contrast, the CTO, who will report to Thompson, will have "day-in and day-out responsibility for global enterprise architecture, making sure all our transactions in nearly 200 countries always work," he says.

In start-ups, the CTO often fills a catchall technology role. "The smaller the company, the less they can afford the luxury of a guy [who is] more into strategy than technology delivery," Davis says. "So they get someone with technology as the prime skill set."

Rick Stiegler has been CTO at Lending Tree Inc. in Charlotte, N.C., since the mortgage company's founding in 1997. In the early days, because the staff was small, his job ranged from software design and configuration management to business analysis and technical presentations for investors.

Now, with 250 employees and a technology department of more than 100, the company has hired CIO Steve Campbell, and Stiegler is moving away from business concerns. Stiegler provides architectural guidance, reviews the technical design for all projects and examines the technical implications of strategic initiatives.

Stiegler, who now reports to Campbell, works primarily on architecture. Campbell does "all the hard stuff," including handling vendors and purchasing technology, Stiegler says. "He manages air cover to the business," he says. "When I'm trying to figure out a bottleneck in the database, he's explaining to the business what's going on and when we'll get it going again."

Stiegler checks with Campbell on any proposed adjustments in architecture or technical philosophy. If they disagree, Stiegler says, "we arm-wrestle, and I usually lose." But it almost never comes to that. "When we disagree, it's usually because one of us has incorrect data," Stiegler says. "Once we both have the same facts, we arrive at the same conclusion."

Stiegler enjoys having a CIO to handle the business aspects of technology. "I've done enough of wearing all the hats," he says. "I want to go back to the cool stuff."

At some companies, the CTO is steeped in the cool stuff as the technology visionary. "Companies often bring CTOs in to develop a longer-term technology strategy, one the CIO just doesn't have time to develop," said Steve Andriole, a consultant at Cutter Consortium.

That's the case at Black & Veatch Corp., an engineering, construction and consulting company in Kansas City, Mo., and one of the 100 largest private corporations in the U.S. CTO John G. Voeller is a lone visionary whose job transcends traditional IT boundaries. "I don't just look at the technology of my enterprise," he says. "I look far beyond IT, at nanotechnologies, biotech and other domains." His mission is to understand the goals of the business and of its clients, anticipate their needs and guide them toward technologies of value.

As Black & Veatch evolved from a partnership to a corporation in the 1990s, Voeller, who used to head IT, passed the reins to Bob Fine, a business-oriented CIO who had "fought the corporate wars." As CIO, Fine has improved vendor relationships, cut costs and streamlined IT activities. CTO Voeller concentrates on the technology vision. Both report to the chief administrative officer, but Fine has the power of the purse. All IT purchases are made through his office, and he manages vendors.

Andriole says that in companies where the CIO and CTO report to a senior executive, their different focuses frequently cause friction because they compete for funding. "The tension comes from having the CTO always pushing the envelope, while the CIO is worrying about making the train run on time," he says.

Usually, the CTO and the CIO share the technology budget, Andriole says, and tension can arise if the CTO seeks to divert money from "putting out brush fires" to building new architectures. "They [CTOs] hate to spend money on things like life support for old systems, so they'll recommend diverting funds from those server upgrades to build the architecture to exploit Web services," he says.

But Voeller says that's not the case at Black & Veatch. "We work as a very good team because we respect each other's ideas," he says. "Our executives are receptive; they believe in and revere imagination."

The key to a good CTO/CIO relationship, Voeller says, is "clear delineation of roles and responsibilities and a reward system based on doing these well." A sure road to ruin, he adds, would be "a CIO with a technology bent who secretly wants to do the CTO job - or vice versa."

The fact that Voeller doesn't report to the CIO isn't unusual. The Cutter survey found that 74% of CTOs don't.

At Allstate Insurance Co. in Northbrook, Ill., CTO Cathy Brune reports to the chairman, and she is the undisputed technology leader. "I was made a senior VP and CTO because we wanted people to understand that I am in charge of technology, and I will make calls and break the ties," she says. Her role is to manage overall architecture, infrastructure and security, a task made trickier by the fact that Allstate's two main divisions have their own IT groups, CIOs and technology budgets.

As Allstate's first CTO, Brune needs to reconcile the IT wish lists of the two business units with the technical standards she's hammering into place. "I cut the baby in half between the two businesses if necessary," she says. In other words, if one business wants one sort of infrastructure/architecture and the other wants another, she decides which will be the corporate standard. "The business unit presidents listen to me," Brune says.

Before she became CTO, there was one CIO who owned the IT budget, and the business unit presidents had to come to him for technology funding. Now the two businesses have their own IT budgets, and they can choose the applications they need to drive their strategies - as long as those follow the CTO's technology standards. Infrastructure, governance, security and companywide architecture belong to Brune.

Because Brune reports directly to Allstate's chairman, she could wield a big stick. But instead, she is persuading the CIOs and their business unit presidents to do things her way. She acknowledges, though, that this entails a lot of "mud wrestling."

"This job is a lot more relationship-driven than I would have imagined," Brune says. "But by doing this early, we get buy-in from everyone around our tech strategy."

The inevitable friction between CTOs and CIOs is a good thing, Andriole says, because it makes companies consider technology trade-offs. "It forces you to think about the implications of putting out those brush fires for what you have to be doing in two to three years," he explains. "It sets up a great dialogue in the corporation."

Melymuka is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at kmelymuka@earthlink.net.

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