Lo Li might oversee aspects of technology at Capital One, but as the managing VP of customer digital experience and payments for a global financial corporation that has invested heavily in cloud and other modernization initiatives, she has to be concerned with budgeting, marketing and other core business functions.
“I'm a technologist at heart,” she said in an interview with CIO Dive. “I was an engineer to begin with and have been the CTO for many organizations.”
Expectations for engineers and technologists have changed in the corporate world.
Companies have turned to technology — and technologists — to provide leadership in areas core to the business. CTOs, CIOs and other chief officers of data, digital and IT operations are redefining their roles, taking on new managerial responsibilities. In some cases, they are setting themselves up to advance into corporate leadership positions.
"Take the names and titles out of it,” Lo said. “We’ll just call it the hooded technology hero.”
More is expected from those in tech leadership positions — communication skills, business acumen, financial awareness and more.
“Computer science and some discrete math was what we expected our engineers to be able to deliver 20 or 30 years ago,” she said. “Today we do expect them to be able to understand the business that they're in, to understand the why of the products that they're delivering.”
With great responsibility comes great scrutiny
Expanding the responsibilities and redefining the role of the chief technologist can cause problems within organizations that have traditionally had finance and operations managers at the helm.
A Gartner survey of IT leaders in March found half of the 21 respondents saw the profile of the CTO rising in their organization and the value of the CTO increasing, according to Nick Jones, VP and analyst at Gartner.
Nearly half of respondents, however, indicated that the processes followed by the CTO to “deliver value to the organization” and KPIs for CTO were “unsatisfactory.”
Unsuccessful CTOs were perceived as too removed from business imperatives by some respondents. They were seen as handing down recommendations from on high and exploring technologies without clear relevance to business or IT needs,” according to Gartner’s report on the study.
CTOs who focus exclusively on new technology without communicating value to stakeholders risk being perceived as “playing with technology, which may not be completely relevant to the business,” Paul Farnsworth, CTO at DHI Group, a software and talent recruiting company, said in an interview with CIO Dive.
Chartering CTO success
Disconnect between the technology and business functions within organizations, especially larger companies outside of the tech sector, is nothing new.
But the centrality of technology to business operations, coupled with greater need for business leadership from CTOs, CIO and others with technology backgrounds has raised the stakes.
“Technology leaders have to be well versed in scripting and cloud and AI and machine learning, and they need to understand how all of that plays into delivering the best outcomes we can,” Lo said. “But we're also expected and should be at the table, working with our product partners with our business partners and understanding the big problems the business is trying to solve.”
Creating an office of the CTO with a clear charter that has a mission statement and delineates who the CTO reports to, who reports to them, and what key metrics will be used to measure success can be a key step in improving perceptions of the CTO across the enterprise, according to Jones.
When the role isn’t spelled out clearly, a gap opens between what the organization thinks the CTO should be doing and what the CTO thinks they should be doing, according to Jones. Dissatisfaction is the likely outcome.
Establishing goals, a reporting structure and KPIs can close that gap, laying out a path to success for CTOs.
As tech-savvy companies like Capital One continue to modernize, and smaller businesses like Weber, the grill company that recently installed its CTO as interim CEO, adopt a more tech-centric business model, the merging of tech and business leadership is likely to continue.
Farnsworth expects to see more CTOs becoming CEOs, as technology continues to be a main driver of innovation, differentiation and growth for businesses.
“Until we start training broader organizations to understand the impact of technology, the CTO or the CIO is often in the best position to do that,” Farnsworth said.
But it takes business skills to run a company, even a technology business.
“You can't be a down-in-the-weeds coder to run a company,” said Farnsworth. “You've got to have elevated your skill set to be in line to run a business.”