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The New Normal — Scaling the challenges of a Modern CTO

Whether you’re a Founding CTO or an Enterprise CTO, you cannot go at it alone. You have to hire a team around you to help delegate and distribute a modern CTO’s responsibilities and overlapping technical domains, such as CIO, CDO, CMO, etc.

Ahmad Nassri
Ahmad Nassri
5 min read
The New Normal — Scaling the challenges of a Modern CTO

Every business has a deep investment strategy in software technology (or needs one!). Regardless of the business vertical, even “old-world” businesses (mining, telecommunications, banking, insurance, etc …) are going through digital transformation.

With modern advancement in AI & Machine Learning, IoT, and quantum computing, why are most tech companies still struggling to operate the most basic software technology? And who is providing the vital leadership and context needed to succeed?

The standard answer tends to be “the CTO, of course” but the role of Chief Technology Officer is becoming more nuanced and specialized, with companion roles forming around the CTO that augment & complement the deep technical area of experience of the CTO.

Specifically, we see more software technology-oriented CDO, CIO, CSO, and CMO roles (Chief Digital Officer or Chief Data Officer, Chief information officer, Chief Security Officer, and Chief Marketing Officer respectively) where in the past, these roles didn’t touch so closely to software technology.

A great measure of how closely these roles have shifted towards software technology is how many “engineer” or “developer” titles now exist in these departments, or how much software they are shipping!

Your org may not look exactly like this, but perhaps close enough, certainly this is the case in the Enterprise world. Everybody is out shipping software and the product team is the only one trying to hold the fort together.

What is a CTO anyway?

There has been much written in defining the roles and responsibilities of a CTO, and contrasting to CIOs & CDOs, as well as describing the accompanying role of VP, Engineering. So I won’t go into a detailed debate, as the outcome will differ in context and across different company sizes, however, it comes down to this: The Business of Technology vs. The Technology of The Business.

The Technology of The Business

Starting with traditional IT, and extending to infrastructure management, and SaaS tools & vendor management…

This technical domain is often as large as the size of the human organization it supports. While it might be micro in size at inception, especially in the early days of a startup, it quickly can become a full-time role of managing all the different technologies and tools the teams use across the company.

One day, you’re using an office suite for everything to run your business (all you need is emails + spreadsheets!). The next thing you know, the Sales team is running 20 different tools, Marketing is using overlapping systems, and the Developers are off to the races building things across every cloud provider and dev tool provider they can find—and you can’t even keep track!

Suddenly there is not a single source of truth for your business and customer data anymore, you start looking into building a data warehouse to aggregate the business vitals across the plethora of SaaS tools and platforms your teams use, and you’ve already given up hope ever to stop shadow IT from taking over.

In large Enterprises, this becomes the CIO’s department, and is typically the second-highest budget after the CTO’s. However, as the former aims to secure, lockdown, and reduce cost, the latter seeks to expand company capabilities through R&D.

And due to the overlap in roles & responsibilities between the CIO & CTO, friction always arises between the two departments!

The Business of Technology

Otherwise known as: “The Product”. This technical domain is far more visible and presumably well defined in the minds of people.

Here you have Product Management, Development & Architecture, Quality Assurance, Design, etc.—all the traditional roles we are familiar with in our industry—so where does the CTO fit in here?

Typically, Founding CTOs (or even hired ones) are naturally going to be more focused on Product areas, either in a hands-on technical leadership role or in a higher-level strategic role. And this is where the role of VP, Engineering comes into play to balance the Strategic vs. Tactical focus areas between the two.

In large Enterprises, the CTO’s role is even less focused and more ceremonial in nature. In fact, most Enterprise CTOs don’t come from a technical background! They instead rise through the ranks through business administration focus areas (product & project management). While that does serve a purpose in large Enterprises, the impact of lacking technical leadership and representation at the top is part of the reason why most Enterprises (especially the “old-world” ones) are still struggling to modernize and adopt a successful digital transformation strategy today.

A Fractional CTO is the Co-Pilot

Whether you’re a Founding CTO or an Enterprise CTO, you cannot go at it alone. You have to hire a team around you to help delegate and distribute a modern CTO’s responsibilities and overlapping technical domains, such as CIO, CDO, etc.

The answer for Enterprise businesses is relatively simple compared to startups: ensure you have the budget, invest accordingly in building teams, and define roles & responsibilities for each technical domain.

In startup-land, however, the budget is tighter, and you simply cannot afford to hire a CIO, a CDO, and a VP Engineering, with separate roles, departments & teams around each… so what to do?

This is where you should look for a Fractional CTO to step in and help ensure you’re putting your business, your team, and your technology on the right track.

A Fractional CTO is an experienced, multi-faceted, and hands-on senior technology executive professional who serves as part-time CTO for organizations that otherwise could not afford or would not need a full-time executive, or for organizations where the CTO’s role is spread too thin.

The key business benefit of retaining a Fractional CTO is that they provide the same expertise and capability of a full-time CTO with a good handle on the technical domains of a CIO/CDO. Without the associated level of salary, benefits, and overhead expense associated with adding a top-level executive. Fractional CTOs manage the technology strategy, leads software development, planning, integration, and implementation.

A Fractional CTO can also help you fill gaps in your CTO’s focus and experience areas, load-balance their work, and help hire and build up your software team’s knowledge.

You might be reading all this and nodding along, perhaps considering the option to start looking for somebody to help you navigate the challenges your team is facing, or you need someone to take hands-on ownership of the team as you recruit and expand your strategy.

For the past few months, I’ve taken on the role of Fractional CTO for several startups at varying stages of their journeys. I’m focused on helping them avoid falling into the trap of reinventing the wheel, minimizing their technical debt footprint, all while pointing out the solved problems they can externalize and avoid wasting precious time on.

Get in touch to discuss any challenges you’re dealing with today.


Ahmad Nassri Twitter

Fractional CTO, Co-Founder of Cor, Developer Accelerator, Startup Advisor, Entrepreneur, Founder of REFACTOR Community. Previously: npm, TELUS, Kong, CBC/Radio-Canada, BlackBerry

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