Models of CTOs: which role matches your business needs?

In his classic work describing the state of the Chief Technology Officer discipline “The Role of the CTO“, Tom Berray of Cabot Consultants articulates four models of CTOs:

  • The Infrastructure Manager
  • The Big Thinker
  • The Technology Visionary and Operations Manager
  • The External-facing Technologist

These well defined models were based on discussions with hundreds of technologists as well as written surveys. It remains the definitive work on CTO roles, and has been referenced by some of the greats, including the personal blog of Amazon CTO Werner Vogels. Werner writes there: “I believe Tom Berray's quadrant gives the best framework for reasoning about what makes CTOs successful.“ I have to agree.

As a CTO, I immediately appreciated Tom's groundbreaking work in describing the community, since it helped me talk with people about my own role. Too frequently people misunderstand what a CTO does, in part because CTOs perform different roles in different enterprises. Ambiguity can impede effectiveness so the clarity of this model has been very helpful.

Ambiguity over the role can also contribute to challenges for organization seeking a new CTO, which leads to another important aspect of Tom's work. He provides a mapping of CTO roles to organizational needs in a way that can help companies determine the best type of CTO for their needs.

If you are preparing a search for a CTO, a study of Tom's framework can help provide context which can ensure you are looking for the right set of skills. If you already have an executive on your team responsible for technology strategy, you may want to ask them if they are familiar with this study, since it may help them in their dialog with others over their role.

Bob Gourley is the co-founder and CTO of Crucial Point LLC and is the former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Bob blogs on enterprise IT at CTOvision.com

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