CIO vs. CTO: What’s the Difference?

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March 13, 2021

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Many people think there are zero differences between a CTO and a CIO. But are they the same?

In this article, you’ll discover what the responsibilities of each are, the key differences between the two roles, whether you need both, and perhaps a thing or two more.

What is a CIO?

A chief information officer (CIO) is the executive responsible for managing and implementing information and computer technologies.

In the past, a CIO performed dual roles as both CIO and CTO.

As technology continued to advance, there became a need to separate the functions into two separate roles.

The company-wide face of your department

A CIO is the company-wide face of your IT department.

In the past, CIOs have been viewed more as someone who ran your back office. However, the role has evolved considerably over the years. Today, the CIO is as much of a business leader as they are a lead programmer, developer, or IT architect.

A CIO must be nimble. This means they respond quickly to trends, changes, and the company's needs. 

Knowledge of business operations

It used to be that a CIO only needed to know about computer information systems.

These days, CIOs also need to know how a business works so that they can integrate information architecture with core business functions. 

Strategic leadership

Today’s CIOs need to be ready to manage and lead business strategies because they’re responsible for business outcomes and performance.

They must also be skilled at aligning IT operations with overall organizational strategy.

Procuring new technology

CIOs are continuously looking for new ways to improve their infrastructure to help their company maintain its razor-sharp edge.

They oversee extensive research to find the tools that’ll boost productivity across all departments. To that end, they seek out vendors who offer the best business solutions for their company’s problems. 

Once the CIO locates them, they procure and oversee their implementation. A CIO works tirelessly to integrate this technology with business processes.

Aware of technological trends

CIOs should also be keenly aware of technology trends because things change rapidly in this field.

One of the CIO's primary objectives is to anticipate future technological trends that'll give their organization a competitive advantage. One of these trends is technology moving away from physical assets and more towards virtual ones using the cloud, big data, and the Internet of Things (IoT).

By keeping up with the trends, a CIO will help the business stay competitive.

Maintains a digital-friendly culture

A CIO must maximize efficiency and productivity by using technology to automate complex tasks.

This helps establish a digital-friendly culture, which means that technology is easy to use. This makes the digital divide between employees and their tools increasingly smaller, which also enables faster communication across departments.

Excellent communication abilities

A CIO needs to forge relationships with other top-level executives and with colleagues at other companies. 

He must also know how to translate technical terms in ways that non-IT employees can understand, and communicate clearly with other departments. 

This means your CIO candidate must have impeccable communication skills

How the role of the CIO has changed

In the '80s, the role of a CIO was more about maintaining computers, databases, and communication networks without the strategic component that's part of the position today.

In the 2010s, there was a proliferation of innovations such as wireless communications, big-data analytics, and mobile devices. This meant that CIOs were forced to develop strategies that'll keep their companies competitive in a rapidly changing marketplace.

CIO qualifications

Companies usually require that a CIO have a bachelor's degree in a related field.

This means things like computer science, computer information systems, IT management, or database administration.

Because a CIO’s responsibilities are inextricably entwined with the business side of things, a master's degree in business administration can help.

What is a CTO?

A chief technology officer (CTO) is the individual who oversees a company's technological needs and its research and development.

The CTO usually is a direct report of the chief executive officer (CEO) of the organization. A chief technology officer's role is an external one: to help your organization continuously grow by using technology to improve what you're able to offer a customer.

A CTO closely examines the short- and long-term technology needs of an organization and uses capital to help the company attain its goals.

Stay abreast of tech developments

Like a CIO, a CTO must stay abreast of tech developments.

This means they need to have a broad knowledge of business technology.

However, they cannot be expected to have an expert understanding of every system. 

Collaborative excellence

A CTO will be collaborating with other departments so they can design the products and services that’ll make what you offer a thousand times better than your competitors.

This means they should be able to work well with others.

Must be creative

To help the company maintain its competitive advantage, A CTO must endlessly innovate by finding ways to use the technological tools at their disposal differently than every other company.

This means they'll need to work with in-house engineers to create something that has never existed before, which requires a great deal of creativity

Sets the company's strategy

A CTO sets strategic objectives concerning the use of corporate technology to lure in more customers. 

This makes it easier for the company to achieve its long-term goals

The first CTO of the US

In 2009, Barack Obama proudly announced the appointment of the country’s first CTO, which is officially part of the United States Office of Science and Technology.

The US CTO’s primary mission is to use technology to stimulate job creation, improve healthcare and security systems, and increase broadband access. Currently, Michael Kratsios assumes this role—the fourth individual to do so since the office began.

The US CTO also helps the office of the President harness the power of data, technology, and innovation on behalf of all Americans.

The US CTO's role also entails the following responsibilities:

  • Improves the quality and reduces the costs of health care and criminal justice
  • Improves government services with lower costs and increased transparency
  • Helps agencies to use open data and expand their data science capabilities 
  • Increases access to broadband
  • Brings technical talent into government for policy and modern operations input
  • Improves community innovation with agencies working on local challenges
  • Keeps the nation secure

What’s the difference between a CTO and CIO?

Many people get chief technology officers (CTOs) confused with chief information officers (CIOs) because they both happen to manage business technology.

Although they're both executive-level positions, the roles couldn't be more different. The main difference between the two jobs is that a CIO focuses on internal technology, while CTOs focus on customer-facing technology.

You could also say the CTO has a strategic planning role, while the CIO has a technology-focused role.

Do you need both a CTO and CIO?

If you want your organization to be successful, it’s crucial to hire both. One isn’t more important than the other. Don’t think for a nanosecond that a CTO can step into a CIO's role and vice-versa. 

These are two different beasts. For example, a CTO will have lots of software engineering expertise. In contrast, the ideal CIO candidate is going to have a long history of working in a company's IT department.

No one person will have the skill set to excel in both roles, nor will they be able to effectively manage the workload of each position.

CIO salary vs. CTO salary

According to Glassdoor, the average annual salary of a CIO in the US in 2021 is $175,046. The average CTO salary is $183,108.

Looking to fill an executive position? Check out Chief Revenue Officer Job Description: What Does a CRO Do?

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Morgan Lichtenstein avatarMorgan Lichtenstein