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Reality Check: What’s the Difference Between a CTO and CIO?

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These two jobs have many similarities, but they're different enough that an increasing number of companies are opting to fill both.

It’s here, it’s happened: Technology now plays a role in virtually every business you can think of. What this means ifor IT is new jobs and more of them as companies continue to expand their technology and IT personnel. This also means an increasing number of leadership roles. You may already know that in IT, there are two very key executive positions: chief information officer (CIO) and chief technology officer (CTO). Although many people get them confused, the two jobs are quite different. Here we’ll take a look at CTOs, CIOs and why a company might choose one over the other. (Find out what life looks like from the executive suite in How to Become an IT Director: Tips from the Top.)

The Role of a Chief Information Officer

A chief information officer (CIO) is an executive within a company whose role is to act as an internal technology strategist. This person needs to understand the company’s business needs and be knowledgeable about the technologies being used. He or she typically reports to the CEO and provides a vision for the future of the company, in terms of technology and how it can contribute to the company’s success. The CIO also collaborates with other business executives in the company to understand its internal workings and needs. The CIO is, in essence, a business IT executive who understands both the business and technological side of the business – and how they fit together.

The Role of a Chief Technology Officer

The chief technology officer (CTO) is also an executive position, but this person can be described as more of a tech engineer – and the top engineer within a single company. The CTO often heads research and development (R&D) related to product development for both current and future products. So, whereas the CIO uses technology to solve organizational problems, the CTO oversees the development of new technologies, whether for use within the company or for sale in the market. The CTO also begins initiatives related to products the company offers or has the potential to develop, as well as plans upgrades or transitions related to the technology or hardware used within the company. The CTO reports to either the CIO or CEO, depending on the company’s size and corporate structure. (Find out more about how these two job roles interact in CFO and CIO: How to Smooth Out Conflicting Roles.)

Differences and Similarities

There are a lot of similarities and differences between the CIO and the CTO. Both jobs require leadership, business knowledge and a strong understanding of tech and business. Both the CIO and CTO should also be strategic thinkers in terms of business and technology. However, while the CTO primarily focuses on the top line, the CIO’s focus is on the business’ bottom line. Ideally, the CTO heads the product development phases of a company, while the CIO runs the IT departments.

Choosing One Over the Other Within a Company

From a company’s perspective, both roles or positions have a lot to offer. Some companies are known for using each interchangeably and having one leader who does the workload for both positions. However, many large companies in technology-based industries opt for both positions because of a need for specialization.

There are just so many new products and technologies that could benefit many companies, and the CIO is really a full-time and extensive position. On the other hand, if a company is large, there also is be a lot of internal business and tech practices that need to be constantly updated and refined. That’s a job for a CTO. And of course, both the CTO and CIO have to work with other employees to ensure the company prospers.


Potential Employment Opportunities

If you want to work your way up to one of these positions, you first will probably have to demonstrate your role within a company, or previous companies, related to technology leadership. In general, both of these positions require extensive experience and knowledge of the field, in general. However, once you are in a position to choose to go one direction or another, the one you choose should depend on where you envision your future effort. If you want to focus on internal business processes related to tech, you would naturally fit into the CIO role. On the other hand, if you want to focus your efforts on external technologies and working with clients or products outside of the company, you should look into a CTO position.

Another way to look at this is whether you have a lot of business knowledge, want to develop business skills in addition to IT skills or just want to focus on IT and tech knowledge. If you also want to use or develop business skills, the CIO position is a better fit. Despite these differences, both positions require leadership experience, internal business knowledge, and IT knowledge. (Learn more about IT management careers in the IT Management Careers section.


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