CTO: The not-so-popular, misunderstood title

While used by nearly 10 percent of major companies, the title chief technology officer has yet to develop into a clearly defined role, according to a New York executive management search firm. And if the CTO title ever does gain full acceptance, it will likely take at least 10 years -- the same length of time it took for companies to embrace the CIO title.

John Davis, president of John J. Davis & Associates Inc., a company hired by clients to find executive talent for top companies, said CTO continues to be a title in search of a definition -- and one that has seen its use slow with the recession.

The problem, according to Davis, is this: "Does the CTO report to the CIO, or vice versa? Or are they complementary positions? Is the CTO part of the IT organization, or does the CTO have a supernumerary role that reports directly to the senior management team? We've seen everything."

Industry executives interviewed this week agreed.

Mike Prince, CIO of Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp., said there is no clear definition of what a CTO does from company to company. Prince said he wouldn't hire a CTO but might consider creating the position some day, more as an incentive to retain a good manager than as a necessary job.

"It might even be a way for me to semi-retire and help the company move forward with its direction," he said.

Karl Huff, vice president of mainframe services at The Northern Trust Co. in Chicago, said his company's CTO is its first. He agreed with Prince that the title had more to do with politics than with necessity.

"He's the CIO, basically," Huff said. "But whether a company has the title or not, there are people doing the job -- setting the technology direction."

Most executives agreed that a CTO should be the long-term technology visionary in a company, concerned less with business than with promoting the future of IT projects.

Paul Borrill, CTO of Veritas Software Inc. in San Jose, said the CTO "is not important for things that must be delivered next quarter." But the position is evolving into an important one for promoting corporate growth through the use of technology, he said.

Davis said a CTO might also supervise Internet initiatives. In other cases, a CTO's primary responsibility is clarifying a company's global technology architecture.

Carry Todd, CTO of First Advantage Federal Credit Union in Newport News, Va., believes many companies that have defined the CTO's mission mistakingly make it chief technology developer.

"I don't think it's developing as much as directing," Todd said. "I really think it's understanding the business and then directing the technology to it. It's about forming the relationship with the business side, where it then becomes ownership."