Modern enterprises going through a digital transformation are making significant technology investments to remain competitive. Technology executives with titles like CIO, CISO, COO, and others are no longer concerned solely with keeping traditional IT departments operating smoothly -- they are fully engaged with developing the infrastructure and systems needed to engage and sell to the customers, partners, and vendors in their supply chain.
Technical debt, mass migration of systems to the cloud and entirely new system principles, such as DevOps and zero-trust architecture, mean that the rate of change in the level of complexity has never been higher. With that added complexity comes risk to both uptime and cybersecurity, but many enterprises lack someone whose role it is to take these issues into account and factor them into the business’s plans for the future.
Complexity demands (pragmatic) vision
Company leadership roles tend to be fairly well-defined. CIOs are under pressure to deliver IT rollouts on time and on budget. COOs are keeping the lights on for many operational tasks, and CISOs spend countless hours worrying about governance and the next data breach. None of this has changed during the current push towards work from home due to COVID-19, and those occupying these executive positions rarely have extra cycles to spend thinking about how to best take advantage of the latest technology trends to get a competitive edge against competition -- let alone how to manage the associated extra complexity.
Effective strategic thinking is best achieved when accompanied by a skillset that combines both technical and business acumen. Ideally, this visionary function is fulfilled by a role that is directly responsible for influencing various stakeholders in the enterprise. A multi-disciplinary leader capable of “pulling it all together” is essential -- like a driver who also maps out the route, tackles mechanical issues, and ensures maximum fuel efficiency. Today’s enterprises need someone with clear visibility into every aspect of the business.
Enter the modern CTO. The mandates for CTO skillsets vary. Some organizations have attempted to create a taxonomy of CTO roles, but this Werner Vogels article about the four types of CTOs probably captured it best. Most CTOs are expected to fill two out of the four roles. The conclusion is that CTOs are either directly responsible for one or more leadership roles in engineering, operations, initial invention or overall vision and strategy. CTOs, by tradition and by definition, are technology experts chartered with the task of innovation, but most also have the good fortune to face the customer and know what is wanted from a business problem-solving standpoint. That is, outside of the engineering and operational responsibilities, these CTOs can also advocate for the customer.
Unifying disciplines to deliver on the big picture
Back in the 1970s, Frederick Brooks wrote about the idea of ‘conceptual integrity’ in his book that was once referred to as “The Bible of software engineering.” The problem he described was similar, in that he was dealing with large-scale technological change and complexity. The analogy Brooks used looked back at the building of Reims Cathedral, an enormous effort that required technical innovation from countless craftspeople over a 200-year timespan, yet still resulted in a harmonious end result. Every element looked like it came from a single point of view and ultimately fulfilled its purpose.
This conceptual integrity was accomplished by having a singular defined role responsible for bringing together the technical innovation, operational reality, and end-user aesthetic, throughout the building effort. Back in the time of the great cathedrals, the leader would have been a master architect whose skillset was not just in knowing exactly how masonry, engineering, and stained-glass production worked, but also how to unite the various stakeholders, in the present tense as well as the future of the building project.
A more modern example is Antoni Gaudi, who as the master architect of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, left a conceptual blueprint for all who are still building that cathedral to maintain the original esthetic. Even though the project started in the 1880s and the model designs did not survive the Spanish civil war, today’s architects and craftspeople working on the project are completing the original vision, with modern techniques. Gaudi’s cohesive vision was so strong that it continues to endure.
In today’s business world, it is no less important to have someone able to build a cohesive vision based on a broad range of important factors. The great craftsmen of history could see the past, present, and future of a cathedral, and today’s CTOs must be able to visualize the past, present, and future of their businesses.
Serving as an advocate and influencer
The CTO role should, first and foremost, be one of influencing others about the conceptual integrity of complex projects. That is true whether a CTO is the founder at a start-up who wrote the first lines of code, someone responsible for a large engineering team, or someone who works with product managers daily and directly interfaces with customers. Unlike CIOs, COOs, or CISOs, CTOs often have a great deal of experience listening to customer needs, and the role is ideally positioned -- and expected -- to bring that voice of the customer back into the enterprise.
The need for somebody to see the big picture and bring disparate elements into harmony is greater than ever. CTOs don’t do it all by themselves, but after synthesizing many inputs, they do have a unique opportunity to influence those around them to ensure that the end result is balanced and unified. And because most projects have a lot of moving parts that require a critical eye, organizations need to employ better tools and techniques in order to stay competitive. Identifying those tools and methods is a particular strength of most CTOs, whose job is to be aware of changes on the horizon and what is coming up next, and how to best take advantage of it.
Understanding the big picture and visualizing a path to the future is the true responsibility of the modern CTO.
Jason Soroko, CTO of PKI at Sectigo, has 20 years of experience researching, innovating, educating markets, developing intellectual property, and contributing to national-level guidance and consortium standards. He works closely with enterprise companies daily to synthesize managed PKI security solutions that meet real-world operational needs. Jason is also the co-host of Root Causes, a PKI and security podcast dedicated to the changing and critically important world of PKI and digital certificates.