CIO vs. CTO
Chartreuse or lime. Can you tell the difference? These two shades of green-yellow look remarkably similar to the untrained eye. But look closer and you will see a world of subtle differences. Each unique hue reflects a particular wavelength of light. I believe the same is true for two related yet distinct leadership positions in established companies — the Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Technology Officer (CTO).
Both executives sit at the intersection of business and technology, but a closer examination reveals the multitude of differences between the two roles.
CIO vs. CTO — What’s the difference?
The CIO manages relationships with internal customers (users) and oversees the organization's IT infrastructure while the CTO helps to grow the business by developing the tools and technology that external customers will buy. The CIO is typically inward-looking. The CTO is more outwardly focused.
Sounds like a clear distinction. But it glosses over the complexities of what these executives actually do on a day-to-day basis. And overlap between the roles does in fact exist, which can cause confusion about who is responsible for what.
Achieving business goals and delivering solutions that satisfy customers is a massive undertaking — success requires clear role delineation.
In some smaller companies, one person (usually the CTO) may even perform aspects of both jobs. However, it is becoming more common to clearly separate the CIO and CTO positions at larger organizations and software companies. I believe this is happening for a few reasons.
One is the need for greater organizational agility. Improving internal IT systems and policies is a major effort — one that largely dictates the team's ability to deliver work more efficiently. Another reason is increasing customer expectations for seamless digital experiences. Many companies are embarking on digital transformations in order to meet this demand, retain customers, and find new ones.
CIOs and CTOs need to work together effectively to support the technology needs of the business. So it is helpful to gain a deeper understanding of the nuances of each. Here is a closer look at the major differences between the CIO and CTO:
The CIO owns the corporate IT strategy. They identify ways to streamline internal technical processes, make IT operations more efficient, and increase profit. They also manage the company's IT infrastructure and identify new tools to introduce into the organization.
The CTO owns the "how" (the development and delivery) of the product or service. They make sure the technical goals are aligned with overall business goals and identify ways to improve upon the offering. The goal is to deliver and iterate upon the tools that customers need.
Areas of expertise
The CIO is an expert at managing internal operations and technology-related business initiatives. They know how to prioritize IT investments, integrate complex internal corporate systems, and increase productivity. They oversee everything from enterprise systems to help desks and introduce new tools (such as digitization and automation) to improve business processes.
The CTO is an expert in all things product delivery and software development. Even in companies that do not strictly create software, the CTO still needs to manage websites, develop applications, and engage with customers digitally. They have a deep understanding of the technical needs of the business and how to develop innovative tools that customers want.
The CIO takes a holistic view of the entire organization. They lead various IT groups, serving as a liaison between IT and other business stakeholders such as finance, legal, and HR. As a member of the C-suite, they typically report directly to the CEO.
The CTO leads the teams of engineers and developers who work to implement the IT strategy by building the technology that customers need. They may interact with cross-functional groups such as product, marketing, and UX. Although they also belong to the C-suite, they typically report to the CIO (but may report to the CEO if their organization does not have a CIO).
The CIO tracks internal system costs and return on investment. They monitor the cost of the company's IT resources, budget variance, and department performance. They may also track internal security metrics such as risk ratings and the number of up-to-date devices on the network.
The CTO tracks productivity. On a high level, they monitor how the work the engineering team is doing supports the IT and company goals. They also track more tactical productivity metrics such as capacity and the number and velocity of features delivered.
Both leaders are essential to driving the technology side of the business forward.
Both need to be strong strategic thinkers. They communicate often to achieve alignment between their respective internal and external viewpoints. And ideally, they balance each other out — so that the company is using technology in a way that supports the overall business needs and allows the team to deliver brilliant products to customers.
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Frequently asked questions about the CIO and CTO roles
What is the main difference between a CIO and CTO?
The CIO focuses inwardly — overseeing the organization's IT strategy and infrastructure for internal users (employees). The CTO focuses more outwardly on developing tools and technology for customers. Both executives are proficient in technology, but their goals differ. While the CIO aims to make IT operations within the company more efficient, the CTO focuses on delivering and improving upon the tools and solutions that customers need.
How should CIOs and CTOs work together?
At some startups and smaller companies, there is no CIO. In these cases, the CTO typically takes on aspects of IT strategy and infrastructure. But at organizations with both a CIO and CTO, these roles communicate frequently with each other about strategy to ensure that their teams are aligned and working towards achieving the overall business goals. Both can contribute to supporting digital transformations and making it possible to deliver greater value to customers.
What is the average salary for CIOs compared to CTOs?
CIO and CTO compensation varies widely based on the type of organization, industry, location, and experience level. But both of these C-suite positions typically command six-figure salaries — ranging from $156,000 to $485,000 for CIOs and $151,000 to $477,000 for CTOs. Keep in mind that most CIOs and CTOs are compensated generously because they bring decades of relevant work experience and play a direct role in the success of the business.
How do I become a CIO or CTO?
There is no single path to become a technology executive. But many CIOs and CTOs begin their careers with a strong educational foundation — earning college and often graduate degrees in technical fields such as information security or computer science. CIOs typically hold roles such as IT manager, cloud infrastructure architect, IT security engineer, or IT director earlier in their careers. CTOs may gain experience in software development as a front-end or back-end developer, DevOps engineer, or release manager before taking on more senior roles such as engineering lead. Both executives may also earn additional certifications in business, management, or administration.