Aiming for the Top: Your Route to Becoming a Chief Technology Officer

by Pranav Ramesh
September 27, 2022
Chief Technology Officer - PTechPartners

“I’ve never found anything I loved more than writing code, but at the same time I knew we had a responsibility as an organization to support the amazing people we’d hired.”Greg Brockman, former CTO of Stripe and current President, Chairman, and Co-Founder of OpenAI. 

Greg Brockman’s quote rings true for a lot of IT professionals on the path to becoming a great Chief Technology Officer (CTO). A profound love of tech expands outward, to care about something beyond the code. The larger business objectives and outcomes of a company and its employees become a sincere concern to those interested in becoming its chief technologist. The significance of innovative technology, which by nature CTOs love to explore and build, is measured by its ability to support the growth and success of a company.

For many IT professionals, the end goal of their career is to earn a place in the C-Suite as a CTO. While it’s an admirable goal, most technologists must realize it’s a goal years in the making, with multiple paths to the end target. And it’s a goal that can come with pitfalls, challenges, and disappointments.  

Many questions can arise about how someone already working in IT can carve a path to CTO. Considering these questions, and their answers, can help those tech professionals looking to surpass middle management and rise up to a CTO position. Some of these questions include:  

  • What paths are available to me as a technologist who wants to become a CTO? 
  • Do I possess the necessary skill set to become a CTO? 
  • What type of company do I want to work for? CTOs at tech giants have distinct roles and responsibilities than CTOs at small to midsize companies.  
  • What do I need to do now to position myself to move into upper management roles?  

Being able to internalize your honest responses to these questions will help frame your thinking and planning for your journey to the C-Suite. Read on to learn about the two main types of pathways technologists can take to move forward in their careers.   

 

Growing with one organization  

This path to the C-Suite as a CTO involves planning and foresight right from the start of your career. Most individuals begin on this path by earning an undergraduate (or advanced) degree in computer science or engineering. After working some internships in college, many future CTOs will start off in a technical role at a company to get some practical experience. As you start to understand the culture at your workplace and after seeking some type of mentorship, some techies will also get an MBA to prepare them for future administrative roles on a broader level.  

Next, you might move into a middle management role, or project manager role, within your current workplace, where you’re doing less day-to-day tech work, and instead are organizing large projects. It is in these roles where you can learn how to create business value from the tech work you oversee and learn how to grow and manage a team. Building on all these skills will enhance your strategic leadership capabilities as you prepare for interviews for CTO. This particular pathway to CTO can take a long time to evolve, especially in a large organization, so you need to be patient and stay the course if your goal of becoming CTO is tied to just one company. 

 

“Stair stepping” through multiple organizations  

A less traditional path that is becoming increasingly common involves “stair stepping” your way through various companies until you become a CTO. This path also involves a significant background in technology but doesn’t necessarily involve earning specific college degrees or certifications or committing your career to a single company.  

This pathway to CTO involves being situationally aware of your company’s needs and strategic plan shaping its growth and direction. Often technologists on this path have held various roles at different size companies with different goals and missions. They are willing to relocate for an opportunity and can seize an opportunity as soon as it presents itself. Experience counts significantly on this path, as does the ability to “sell yourself” and highlight all the different experiences and skills that make you perfect as a CTO. 

Also, experience counts, as building your career step-by-step while experiencing incredible amounts of change at different companies can be incredibly attractive to companies looking for a seasoned CTO. It’s also important to understand what type of leader you have become over the course of building your career. If you’re a very tech-forward leader, you might want to target organizations for employment that are receptive to that outlook. Applying for CTO roles with organizations that have a similar outlook and leadership style to yours is often a better bet than trying to adjust your leadership style to fit a particular environment.  

One shining example of a CTO who “stair-stepped” his way to the C-Suite at Microsoft Azure is Mark Russinovich. Russinovich started his tech career as a research associate with the University of Oregon’s computer science department during the mid-1990s. His first full-time role was as a developer with NuMega Technologies. Later that same year, Russinovich co-founded Winternals Software, where he served as Chief Software Architect. From 1996 to 1997, he worked as a consulting associate at OSR Open Systems Resources.  

After that move, Russinovich was a research staff member at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center. He joined Microsoft in 2006 after it acquired Russinovich’s own Winternals Software company and became the CTO in 2014. Russinovich played the long game, and he played it smart. 8+ years later, he’s still at the helm of all things tech at Azure.  

Conclusion

It’s important to keep in mind what your long-term goals are and set down the best path to get there. Opportunities may come available that match your skills, experience, leadership style, and needs. Planning your ascent to CTO status now will help you navigate a complex hiring market and help you better understand how to position yourself for a CTO role. And who knows? After a successful run as a CTO, maybe you’ll be planning your next move to CEO! 

 

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