Striking a Balance: the Top Priorities and Challenges for Today’s CTO
Published: 8th February 2023
A CTO (or Chief Technology Officer) is responsible for overseeing all technical aspects of an organisation. But this description is nowhere near sufficient to describe the vast array of priorities and challenges that have been added to the role in recent years.
What a CTO is accountable for varies widely, depending on the:
- sector they are working in,
- size of the company,
- product/service offered by the company,
- team surrounding them,
- strategy of the company.
While their responsibilities may vary, through our work supporting CTOs in organisations large and small, we understand how similar their priorities are and how valuable it is to share these experiences. To deepen this understanding, we recently surveyed a cross-section of CTOs. Here is what we learnt about their five most pressing priorities and challenges.
1. Emerging risks and threats
Staying ahead of the changing trends in information security and the evolution of cyber-attacks is one of the key priorities for many CTOs we spoke to. The pace of change and technological advancement coupled with new risks and threats released every day present a challenging environment for CTOs to keep abreast of.
As a result, many carve out the start of their day to undertake a quick review of the latest news. Yet this too is becoming a challenge as the reading time necessary to keep up is ever increasing for CTOs.
Dedicated resources such as CTO Vision and ModernCTO help to cut through the noise and RSS reader apps help to prioritise the content. Feedly, NewsBlur and Inoreader are all good options to organise content consumption, follow specific topics or authors, and receive automated updates that are personalised.
2. Balancing the New and the Old
Building the roadmap of new technology and communicating this with the board is also high on the list of CTO priorities. CTOs will have agreed on their technology and product strategy for the board and need to ensure they are making the expected progress along this roadmap. At the same time, they must allow for flexibility to be able to adopt new technologies quickly to continue to help their business grow and maintain their competitive edge.
CTOs need budget to deliver the new technology. To secure this, they must communicate how technological changes could create new opportunities, produce cost savings, reduce manual processes, and increase ROI.
This is one of the biggest challenges when stepping up to the role of CTO; you might be a technical expert, but now need to become expert in business management and organisational change. Looking to peers for mentorship and networking with CTOs from other organisations can help. Suppliers too can support by sharing information on the impact of products or services on similar organisations to support a business case.
At the same time, existing technology needs to be maintained or retired carefully. If patches aren’t applied promptly, cyber criminals can be quick to exploit these vulnerabilities. To keep their company protected, CTOs need to maintain and retire technology when it reaches the end of its useful life or is no longer safe.
And it’s not just the existing technology that needs to be looked after, but the existing clients too. Servicing new clients is a major drive, but this can’t come at the expense of existing clients. There may be a sense that long-term clients will always be there and the revenue can be counted on. But complacency here is just as risky as complacency with existing technology.
These are two examples where CTOs must master a hard balancing act. They are balancing the new and the old with both technology and clients.
3. Navigating Regulatory Requirements
A major priority and challenge reported by CTOs is ensuring the company’s IT systems are compliant with industry regulations and standards. This can be a complex and time-consuming task. Some rely on a managed security service provider to help with this. They have the knowledge and experience to ensure all necessary regulatory requirements are met and can provide the required documentation and certifications to prove it.
This can be a compliance-based standard such as Cyber Essentials, a risk-based standard such as ISO 27001. Or a sector-specific regulation like The Digital Operational Resilience Act. Keeping up with the changing regulations can present a challenge for CTOs.
CTOs are often asked to field questions from customers about regulatory compliance and need to be knowledgeable about the entire tech stack. They also need to keep their teams informed about the policies in place for the technology they are working with.
4. Leading the Team
The size of the company and how established the team is will determine how much of a CTO’s day is taken up with people management. Many manage sizable teams who need support with issues, prioritisation, and training.
Technology develops at such a pace that CTOs need to build a structure for learning and development. Nurturing the team as the business grows and introducing more levels of management will save time in the long run when a CTO can rely on their team to manage day-to-day operations and project work while keeping the team engaged.
Home grown talent has a tendency to stay longer and can be trained according to the companies specific needs. Promoting existing staff and allowing them to grow and develop will build commitment and aid long term strategic planning for growth and succession. CTOs also need these experienced people to nurture new talent and it’s another delicate balance to bring in new people while growing the skills of the existing teams.
When hiring new team members, interviewing, and reviewing CVs will take significant time. This resource commitment is higher than ever as a shortage of tech talent is making it hard to hire and retain the right candidates. But attracting and training the right talent now will build momentum in the organisation, allowing the business to build at pace and beat competitors to the market with new products and services.
5. Internal and External Marketing
Another challenge for CTOs is to ‘sell’ new technology internally. They need to help the whole company to embrace new technology. But they don’t need to shoulder this responsibility alone and can rely on other departments such as HR and Marketing. These teams will gladly support with training and internal communications. Likewise, suppliers will have implemented their technology many times over and can support with an implementation plan.
CTOs need to sell externally too. A CTO can support business growth by taking part in speaking engagements to attract new clients and technology partners, and to raise awareness of their company. This is another opportunity for growth for newer CTOs who may not yet have perfected their public speaking skills.
Again, the Marketing and Communications Teams will be ready to support. Whether with external media training or internal coaching, they will help the CTO to become an engaging spokesperson for the businesses.
Getting the balance right
Each of the priorities faced within the role of CTO require careful balance. Whether that’s balancing old and new technology, existing and new staff members or internal and external marketing, the need for balance came up time and again. This is particularly challenging in today’s fast-changing landscape as technology advances continue with no end in sight, new threats are reported daily, and governments work to tighten regulation to keep pace.
So how can this balance be achieved? When we dug deeper with the CTOs we surveyed, community came out as the key. Regardless of the form of this community, what stood out was the need to share experience and learn from others.
One form of community can be found online. From groups on LinkedIn offering updates and information to groups on WhatsApp offering friendship and support, there is a lot to be gained from networking with others in the same position as you.
Another form is in-person. There is an energy that comes with in-person events, that didn’t carry over to virtual meetings during Covid. We missed out on networking and making connections and there’s an appetite to rebuild this community in the CTOs we surveyed.
Whatever form of community CTOs choose to engage with, it will prove key to striking the right balance.