The chief technology officer (CTO) role is critical for organizations that want to better understand recent and powerful innovations and use them in their own operations. CTOs enhance services and experiences internally for organizations as well as for their customers. If you want to make a direct, technological impact on daily operations and procedures, and create innovative solutions that support high-level business decisions, this could be an exciting and enriching career choice.
With the right combination of education and experience, you can effectively build a comprehensive skill set that drives a forward-facing tech strategy. In turn, you can support continued company growth, enhanced security, increased agility and more positive customer experiences.
If you’re wondering how to become a CTO, keep reading to learn about common career paths and average salaries, important responsibilities, educational requirements and degree programs designed to build your qualifications.
What you should know before becoming a CTO
Since CTOs are part of the executive suite, these roles often require advanced experience to effectively lead an organization’s technology operations. You may need to develop experience in using, managing and implementing technology and build your understanding of business operations as well.
CTOs tend to focus on policy and overarching strategy in relation to hardware and software. They pay close attention to new developments related to emerging technologies that can benefit their company. Identifying connections between cutting-edge tools and business use cases is a critical responsibility.
Other key responsibilities of a CTO include:
- Building and maintaining relationships with technology providers and partners.
- Creating and updating the company’s technology strategy.
- Managing an organization’s technology and IT budget.
- Overseeing technology deployment and management.
Skills needed to succeed as a CTO
Just as there are two main areas in which CTOs must build knowledge, the most relevant skills for these leaders tend to follow either a management or technical classification. While broadly useful talents like critical thinking and analytical decision-making also come into play, many key abilities are related to the following two areas.
Management skills for CTOs
Perhaps the most important management skill for a CTO is to effectively connect business goals and strategies with emerging and existing technologies. Finance, resource management, analysis and more can all come into play, both for this task specifically and for the job’s general duties.
CTOs must be effective communicators, capable of taking information from technical specialists and accurately conveying it to executives, directors and other high-level staff who may lack advanced knowledge in that area. Similarly, they must translate potentially complex business objectives and plans into language that technology-focused professionals can understand. A CTO serves a vital conduit of information and strategy within a company, keeping both the executive suite and the staff who work under them informed and updated.
General management abilities are also vital for positive outcomes. CTOs must build and implement technological policies, which requires strong abilities related to delegation, organizing teams, process development and much more. If a particularly complex problem or major opportunity arises related to a CTO’s areas of responsibility, it’s often up to that executive to address it. This means an ability to think and act quickly yet carefully is also especially valuable.
Technical skills for CTOs
Most CTOs need a strong background in areas like coding, IT management and research and development for new technology. Security may also be a part of a CTO’s responsibilities, requiring the ability to understand, implement and assess both threats and solutions.
While much of the day-to-day work of managing and maintaining technology will fall to other staff members, CTOs play key roles in implementations, exploring opportunities related to technology, addressing time-sensitive technological issues and more. The ability to not only navigate and contribute to these processes on the technical level, but lead them as well, is crucial.
How to become a CTO: 3 potential pathways
While you need a background in both management and technology to become a CTO, you have the power to decide how to build your knowledge base and related abilities in those fields.
We’ve grouped together relevant undergraduate and graduate programs offered online from Arizona State University, highlighting just a few of the many ways you can address the common education requirements for a CTO role.
How to become a CTO in technological leadership
A bachelor’s degree in technological leadership can effectively address the two core areas of competency for every CTO: technology as well as management principles and psychology.
This program features “making” and “thinking” courses. The making classes emphasize practical problem-solving, while thinking courses focus on research skills and inquiry-based learning techniques. Students also complete two internships over the course of the program, which support both skill development and the creation of professional networks.
In this program, you can build knowledge and abilities related to technology, business, innovation and entrepreneurship. The curriculum includes a focus on improving operational structures and innovating products from a technological perspective, which are areas many CTOs focus on.
The entrepreneurship track of this program can empower you to develop the type of entrepreneurial mindset that companies rely on and look for. You can cultivate talents that support work as an internal innovator and leader within an existing business — an “intrapreneur.” The innovation track can also align with your goals. By selecting this option, you’ll have the opportunity to work with startups and established companies, such as Honeywell and Boeing, to gain experience in leading change and innovative efforts.
When you complete an MBA, you can develop a strong knowledge set of advanced business strategies that can apply to technology, IT and many other areas of operation. The clear business focus of this program supports the high-level management concerns of executives like CTOs.
Through the electives available in this program, you can focus on topics that are most relevant to your career plans. Options that may be especially relevant to CTOs include:
- Finance: The Art of Managing Resources.
- Management of Technology and Innovation.
- Managerial Accounting.
- New Product and Service Development.
How to become a CTO in engineering
Through this program, you can develop familiarity with the principles of engineering science and business management. Successful students build key competencies and skills in these two areas where CTOs must have relevant experience.
Completing courses such as Project Management, Engineering Administration and Risk Management can support your career goals. This powerful combination of technical and leadership knowledge can serve you well in your first positions after graduation and eventually as a CTO.
Engineering managers frequently lead highly technical projects, something CTOs regularly do as well. The advanced curriculum supports your efforts to develop both technical and leadership skills, from project and quality management to strategic planning for technology.
As an aspiring CTO, you can select a concentration such as systems and software management or entrepreneurship and innovation. Through the courses tied to these elective paths, you can build familiarity with issues, opportunities and abilities that are critical for executive-level technology roles.
How to become a CTO in information systems management
Information technology (IT) is a foundational need for nearly every modern business. In this program, you can develop highly relevant talents for CTOs and IT professionals in general, such as configuring and managing complex digital systems and full stack development.
Security is also an area of emphasis. The knowledge you build in this area can support efforts to protect critical information and infrastructure, addressing a foundational responsibility of the CTO role. With a strong background in core technological competencies, you could pursue a management graduate degree or build that experience as part of your career.
By completing this graduate program, you can establish advanced knowledge and skills related to IT that support career progression. This degree can be a strong choice if you’re interested in a CTO role that emphasizes IT management, oversight and leadership.
As a student, you can select one of the two following areas of specialization to further focus your studies:
- Computer architecture and information security.
- Information systems management and systems development.
While the curriculum focuses on advanced technological topics, you can also build leadership abilities. The Advanced Information Systems Security course, for example, includes discussions of technical need as well as real-life application with a focus on the human aspect of information security. You can also build management experience as you move into more senior roles that require this type of advanced education.
The global scope of this program can empower future business leaders working in an increasingly connected international economy. The leadership focus can complement a bachelor’s or master’s degree in IT, addressing the two knowledge areas that are so critical for CTOs.
Completing courses in data-driven and digital decision-making, communication, global leadership and more can support your efforts to define your professional path and positively influence organizations with an advanced leadership acumen.
CIO vs. CTO: What’s the difference?
The job title of CTO can often be confused or used interchangeably with another role, Chief Information Officer (CIO). Gartner, a technology research and consulting company, shared definitions for each position, which can help to distinguish between CTOs and CIOs conceptually:
- A CTO has “overall responsibility for managing the physical and personnel technology infrastructure” of an organization. They also work with clients to meet expectations connected to a company’s use of technology.
- A CIO “oversees the people, processes and technologies within a company's IT organization,” with their ultimate focus on supporting business goals.
CIO magazine offered another perspective on the CIO vs. CTO debate, explaining that CTOs emphasize research into new and potentially useful tech and the development of workflows that improve products and services. CIOs, meanwhile, aim their efforts toward top-level oversight of an organization’s IT systems and efforts to harmonize IT with business objectives.
However, the exact nature of the role can vary from one company to the next. The CIO of one organization may have similar or identical responsibilities to those held by a CTO in another business.
These definitions can empower you to make a more informed choice about your career path. Consider the flexibility of these two positions and their potential to cross over as you build your career.
CTO salary expectations and job outlook
Considering the experience and educational requirements for CTO roles, opportunities for growth are significant. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the median salary for chief executives, including CTOs, was $185,950 as of May 2020.
It’s important to note that salary may only be one piece of the total compensation package offered to executives like CTOs. Incentives, stock options, benefits and bonuses should all be taken into account whenever you look for a CTO position. Every package can be different, so a thoughtful comparison of your options is recommended. In terms of job outlook, the BLS projects growth of 8% for executive positions like the CTO role through 2030.
The BLS also predicts that about 247,000 positions will be open each year through 2030, representing significant opportunities. While this figure takes all types of executives into account, the increasing reliance of nearly all organizations on technology may support additional growth.
Build the knowledge needed to become a CTO
ASU Online has options that can support your journey to becoming a CTO. Our online programs prioritize flexibility while connecting you with a rigorous yet welcoming academic environment with the same instructors who lead on-campus courses. Although you need to keep important deadlines in mind, our asynchronous courses enable you to complete coursework on your schedule.
If you need assistance with technical troubleshooting, time management or a variety of other common concerns, you can also access a wide variety of support services that take the unique needs of online learners into account.
Learn more about information technology degrees at ASU Online or speak with an enrollment advisor today.