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Executive Search

CIO vs. CTO: What’s the Difference?

Morgan Lichtenstein
6 min read

The roles of a Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) are one and the same...right?

They're both vital executive-level roles that revolve around improving a company's technology strategy, but that's about where the similarities end.

Although these job titles are commonly mistaken as synonymous, the bottom line is that there are some very important distinctions between CIOs and CTOs — especially regarding key roles and responsibilities.

By having a better understanding of the differences between these career paths and what they entail, your team can make better-informed hiring decisions.

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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 (Chief Technology Officer). But with technology continuing to advance and evolve, there is a growing need to separate various functions into two separate roles.

What Does a CIO Do?

The modern CIO’s role is a very future-facing position. Today’s CIOs need to be able to analyze tech trends and predict the new technologies that their companies will need to adopt in order to maintain a competitive advantage over competitors.

Key Roles and Responsibilities of a CIO

The CIO’s job is a complicated one with lots of different facets. Some of their fundamental daily responsibilities include:

  • Standing in as the company-wide face of the IT department (this means that they may be as much a lead programmer as they are a business leader who needs to be nimble enough to respond to tech trends, changes, and company needs).
  • Understanding business operations in order to integrate information architecture with core business functions.
  • Taking a leadership role to align IT operations with organizational strategies to optimize business outcomes and performance.
  • Procuring new technology to keep IT infrastructure up-to-date and competitive.
  • Maintaining a digital-friendly culture so that the digital divide between employees and their tools shrinks while technology remains easy to use.
  • Communicating with top-level executives and colleagues at other companies as well as communicating technical terms clearly to non-IT employees.

CIO Qualifications

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

Here are some sample qualifications to look for when interviewing for a CIO:

  • Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science or a related field, or a Master of Business Administration degree.
  • Strong communication and negotiation skills.
  • IT systems infrastructure experience.
  • Budgeting and accounting experience.
  • Business management experience.

How To Recruit a CIO

Because a CIO will play such an important role in building your company's tech infrastructure, finding the right talent for the job is vital— but can be challenging. Not only is it tough to find candidates with the right experience level, but when you do, there's a good chance they’re already employed elsewhere.

This is where turning to an experienced recruiting firm can make all the difference, taking much of the stress and hassle off of your hiring/HR team's shoulders and allowing them to focus on other important aspects of your business. 

Of course, not all recruiting firms are created equal.

Ideally, you'll want to work with one with specific and proven experience with executive and C-level recruiting. This way, you can rest assured that your recruitment team will understand the unique nuances that are involved in hiring for a CIO position. 

An executive recruiting firm will also have experience with passive recruiting and other strategies that can help you find candidates you wouldn't have access to otherwise, giving you the competitive edge you need.

In addition to working with a great executive recruiting firm, take the time to carefully set your business goals and objectives for a CIO role. What is your team (including your CEO and stakeholders) hoping to get out of adding a CIO into the mix — and what kind of growth path is the company on?

Knowing the answers to these questions will help your team frame the roles, qualifications, and skills needed in an ideal CIO candidate.

This is also a good time to consider what your company can do to attract the right talent for this type of position. This includes not only offering a competitive salary and compensation/benefits package, but boasting a strong company culture that will attract the right executive-level talent for the position.


What Is a CTO?

A Chief Technology Officer (CTO) is the individual who oversees a company's technological needs and its research and development. This position typically reports directly to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO).

The CTO’s role is an outward-facing one: to help your organization continuously grow by using technology to improve what you can offer a customer. Their job is to closely examine an organization's short and long-term technology needs and use capital to help the company reach its goals.

What Does a CTO Do?

Most CTO positions are customer-facing in that they’re in charge of using technology to meet customers' needs. This can include duties like upgrading technology to streamline online shopping or other key brand interactions. It can also mean using technology to create innovative new products that fit the company’s business model.

Key Roles and Responsibilities of a CTO

The CTO role shares a few similarities with the CIO role, but there are some specific differences. A CTO's key responsibilities include:

  • Staying abreast of tech developments, which requires the CTO to maintain a broad knowledge of business technology.
  • Being creative in order to help the business maintain a competitive advantage in terms of the company's products and services offered (this requires close collaboration with in-house engineers).
  • Setting business strategy concerning the use of technology to bring in more customers.
  • Ensuring the organization is efficiently using technology that is already in place.
  • Establishing and monitoring IT budgets with regard to company technology, customer-facing technological innovations, and more.

CTO Qualifications

Much like a CIO, a CTO should have at least a bachelor’s degree in a technology-related field like computer science. Many employers also like to see a master's in Business Administration, or even a hybrid degree so long as it covers both technology infrastructure and business management.

Equally important to education, extensive on-the-job experience lends itself to higher qualified candidates. 

When hiring for a CTO, search for qualifications including, but not limited to:

  • A bachelor’s in Technology and an MBA, or equivalent college experience.
  • Familiarity with major tech trends like AI, machine learning, automation, data management, etc.
  • Experience with product development.
  • Experience with modern infrastructure.
  • DevOps and software development experience.
  • Proven track record of creating successful products or implementing successful new services.

How to Recruit a CTO

Once you've decided that your company needs a CTO, it's time to start the recruitment process. Just as recruiting a CIO, however, finding the right talent for a CTO position is easier said than done. 

Again, this is where it can be useful to work with an experienced C-level recruiting firm that understands what to look for in a great CTO candidate and how to tap into the right networks to find this kind of talent.

A great executive search firm will also be able to sit down with you and create a candidate profile for your ideal CTO. This will include specific skills, qualifications, and experience that your "perfect" CTO would bring to the table, like those highlighted above.

From there, your recruiter can tap into their own professional networks and draw on a number of resources to find candidates who fit that ideal profile.

When recruiting for a CTO position, it's also important to consider that somebody in this role will be dealing not only with other employees — but your external customers as well. With this in mind, you might prioritize finding talent with strong interpersonal communication skills and plenty of technical expertise.

From there, be prepared to act swiftly once you find the right candidate for the job. Those interviewing for CTO positions may already have other job offers lined up, so your offer needs to be competitive and aggressive. 

Your executive recruiter will be able to recommend a competitive salary and benefits package based on the current job market and other factors. 

Key Differences Between CTOs and CIOs

Because both CTOs and CIOs both manage technological systems, it's easy to get these executive-level roles confused.

The biggest differentiator to remember is that the CIO is more focused on improving internal technology, whereas the CTO is more customer-facing and centered around improving technology externally.

More specifically, a CIO tends to be responsible for a company's tech infrastructure, including IT operations. This executive hones in on the company's internal processes and is thus focused on employees.

A CTO, on the other hand, takes responsibility for driving innovation and increasing revenue through external products (such as software and applications).

With this in mind, the role of a CTO is more focused on serving customers than employees — though a CTO may still be responsible for engineering and development teams.

Do You Need Both a CTO and CIO?

Every organization is different and one role isn’t more important than the other. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the roles are interchangeable, however. Similarly, you shouldn't hire one and expect them to perform both roles.

The truth is that these are two completely different roles. For example, a CTO will have lots of software engineering expertise. In contrast, the ideal CIO candidate will have a long history of working in a company's information technology department.

Whether or not you'll need both, is up to the unique needs of your business and digital team.

CIO Salary vs. CTO Salary

Salaries can vary quite a bit depending on current tech trends. For example, if there is a huge demand among organizations to transform internal technology, then CIO salaries may jump up. Conversely, CTO salaries can soar in competitive markets where businesses try to out-innovate each other.

As of 2023, CTOs and CIOs receive similar pay in the United States. According to Glassdoor, the average annual base salary of a CIO in the U.S. is $167,841. The average CTO base salary is just slightly higher at $169,499.


Looking For a CIO or CTO? Hunt Club Can Help

While CIOs and CTOs get mistaken for one another, they bring some very distinct skill sets to the table. Both roles are undoubtedly crucial to the success and growth of a company — which is why many businesses choose to hire both a CTO and a CIO.

Whether you're looking to hire one or both, having the right executive recruiting firm on your side can make all the difference.

At Hunt Club, we specialize in C-Level recruiting that yields the most qualified, diversified IT leaders and technology leaders who can take your company to the next level. 

With access to our network of more than eight million industry leaders and proprietary search technology to power your executive search, we can connect you with your next C-suite hire. 


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