So You Want To Be A CTO?

The role requires you to constantly balance technical and people skills, and to look ahead while fulfilling the here and now.

Karen Tegan Padir, CTO, Progress

April 14, 2014

5 Min Read
(Source: Wikimedia)

I'm passionate about technology -- how it works and which environments spawn the highest levels of innovation. I've thoroughly enjoyed those times in my career when I was leading "from the engine room" with both hands on the wheel, making things go faster and better.

So when I was asked to become CTO of Progress Software, starting in June 2013, I harbored a secret suspicion that CTOs were figureheads who don't add value. I didn't have an inside view of the job, so I had the prejudice at the time of my position as a senior business line vice president and my former executive roles.

But when our CEO asked me to drive the process of unifying our technology and clarifying our message, the function and potential of the position were appealing. Being CTO would mean pushing past the boundaries I had needed to operate within and taking on a role as both advocate and coach. It now falls to me to help shape where we're going strategically, while translating that strategy into tactical goals that create value for all stakeholders.

[Here's why IT should watch its relationship with the business side. Read IT, Business Exec Gulf Widens, McKinsey Says.]

Passion for technology is central to the CTO role, but it's not enough. You still need to concern yourself with nuts-and-bolts issues -- with making things run better and faster -- but you need to cede most day-to-day operational control to a capable team.

It's important to assign responsibilities, not just delegate them. CTOs might not have to worry about the same level of detail that a project manager watches, but they still need to drive delivery, quality, and strategy. That means combining an intuitive understanding of your company's products and technologies with an equally well-tuned understanding of people. When Joe says it will be done tomorrow, what does that mean? Or when Jane says something has met all its functional tests, can you bank on that assessment?

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The hardest and most critical part of being a CTO is motivating others to meet the challenges that you set. Too much pushing and not enough listening, and people start dissembling, passing the buck, and fudging information. Too little pushing and too much listening, and you get a steady diet of pie in the sky.

The CTO's job is to build a great team and deliver results. Driving your organization's processes while maintaining clarity around its missions, goals, objectives -- and potential -- is a balancing act. You can't lose sight of one while paying attention to the other. In most industries, especially IT, the pace of change is so relentless that it's not uncommon to have to substantially modify what your team is doing halfway through.

Sometimes what's happening with your team drives the process. If you're way ahead of the industry with a key development, you need to tie that fact into company strategy and go-to-market activities. More often, the process of developing and delivering something new and improved needs to be modified -- it's as if a car maker asked its development team for a new economy car and then, halfway through the process, came back and added requirements more appropriate for a sports car or high-end SUV. Welcome to the world of the CTO.

It has been said that preparation is everything. When you move into the CTO role, all your training and experience are relevant, even things you probably haven't thought about in years, or experiences you've had with technologies that aren't hot news items anymore. More to the point, being CTO is like answering to the character in Jerry Maguire who says, "Show me the money!" You need proof and results so you can grasp for bigger truths and goals.

Last but not least, CTOs must be customer-focused. Your brilliant team and carefully crafted company strategy mean nothing if you can't get customers on board. Sometimes you'll be ahead of your customers. You should be. It's your job to see the future, but you must see that future in terms that represent value to customers.

That's why there is no substitute for direct engagement with customers (and partners). You must make the time to connect with them and get to know their business challenges. Your current customers are your bread and butter, but don't neglect potential customers. This engagement process is crucial to ensuring that you're building, not only the things customers want now, but also things that they'll want in the future.

You need to support customers in their traditional way of doing business, leveraging their investments until they're ready to move ahead. It's another challenging balance. The adage about the customer always being right is true, but to succeed as a CTO, you must pave the road out in front of each one, too.

You must have a feel for everything your organization is doing and everything that's going on in your customers' and partners' world. And you must guide your customers and partners -- as well as your team -- toward a goal you know is out there, even if you can't always define it completely and even when the pundits haven't given it a name yet.

To keep the right balance within your team, draw on analogies from team sports, where each player must focus on playing his or her own position and supporting the others. That can be difficult. But the fact that you have "been there" earlier in your career means you can spot and anticipate problem areas and address them proactively to keep your team headed in the right direction.

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About the Author(s)

Karen Tegan Padir

CTO, Progress

Stephen Pattison is Vice President of Public Affairs at ARM. He has previously held senior roles in government and in business. 

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