The Modern CTO: Recruiting Top Talent, Battling Skeptics and Promoting Innovation

The CTO, chief technology officer, is a strategic role. Meaning, the individual in this role is primarily concerned with creating the high-level technology vision for an organization as well as its execution, but not necessarily the day-to-day decision-making. That vision could include creating a positive perception about technology for stakeholders who are leery, mistrustful or who hesitate to make necessary tech investments for fear of wasting resources following fads.

This individual likely has a technology background. A tech-based academic degree is common, as is a fruitful career featuring various levels of work as a practitioner and manager. But once ascending the tech career ladder to this top position, the CTO’s focus changes from choosing and operating tech systems to directing R&D, building innovation models and ensuring their organizations produce the best – technology-driven – solutions for customers.

There Is a Technical Talent Shortage

To do so requires a strategic perspective and a keen focus on what’s best for the organization as a whole. Technology can drive business growth, but if necessary, the CTO has to have enough foresight to say: ‘Emerging technology won’t fix this problem.’ 

Sustainability, branding, customer satisfaction, business development, and certainly talent management are all CTO concerns. Talent management is perhaps the most challenging because the technology industry is dealing with an extreme imbalance between supply and demand. There simply aren’t enough skilled technical professionals to fill the market’s needs. A 2019 survey of more than 250 members from the LA CTO Forum listed recruiting, hiring, sourcing and onboarding as the biggest challenge CTOs will face this year, and that’s unlikely to change as we move into 2020.

Due to the lack of qualified workers in the marketplace, many companies have prioritized internal talent development, which brings its own challenges. Most organizations don’t have the resources – or the expertise – to build the advanced level technical skills they need, particularly in emerging technologies. Outsourcing is a viable solution to develop technical talent without devoting time and resources to a learning team. Technical training companies like DevelopIntelligence, for instance, offer companies the latest technical expertise – at scale – taught by active, vetted and skilled practitioners. 

But no matter what technical training provider a company chooses, the key to a successful relationship is to find one that will act as an engaged business partner, not just a vendor. The CTO might not be actively selecting technical training providers, but he or she needs to see metrics-backed results from training interventions. 

Tech Skeptics Impede Business Growth

As the world becomes more technically advanced, having the right talent at hand to address problems and build solutions will be one of the most important competitive differentiators’ companies can have to win in the marketplace. Training is just one solution. It’s a valuable one, but the tech talent crisis – to coin an overworked but still accurate phrase – is so substantial, it will require multiple strategies and energy from multiple stakeholders to stop it. It certainly won’t be easy. 

In addition to talent challenges, data and security concerns, etc., the CTO must also deal with growing skepticism around technology and its ability to advance business. Continuous digital transformation is necessary, and people instinctively and logically know they need technology to solve problems. But the CTO still has to build a business case before he or she can drive any strategy around technical innovation.

According to a May article in CIO referencing data from IDC, “some 40 percent of all technology spending will go toward digital transformations, with enterprises spending in excess of $2 trillion through 2019.” But unless those companies’ leaders are completely dialed in to the potential emerging technologies have for business, those funds were likely hard-won.

Digital Transformation Is Not Just a Catch Phrase

Thanks to the speed and number of information sources that are now available to us – including social media – advances in technology can seem less like business opportunities and more like fly-by-night, not to be taken serious fads. Even the phrase digital transformation can lead to eye-rolling, which leaves the CTO in the non-enviable position of having to eliminate skepticism before any tech strategy ever comes into play. 

To combat that tech skepticism, many CTOs have added a new technical position to their roster of talent to acquire. 3M, for instance, has a chief science advocate whose job is to communicate more effectively with both the internal and external organization: to talk about science and changes emerging in the technical landscape. This person should be a learning advocate as well, and be adept at sharing how training can help to inspire and develop the next generation of technical talent needed to keep organizations in the global marketplace winner’s circle. 

Between business development, talent concerns, shepherding and executing a positive and proactive innovation strategy and, of course, security and data protection in all its myriad forms, the CTO has his or her plate full. It’s a role that prioritizes learning on multiple levels, but it’s also one that values strategy, communication, data and trust. 

Kyle Pennell
Kyle Pennell is a marketer and writer with a variety of technical chops (JavaScript, Google Sheets/Excel, WordPress, SEO). He loves clear and helpful copy and likes automating things and making web apps (mostly maps). Found at kyleapennall.com and many other digital spaces