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Is the CTO the new standard for a DevOps leader?

For DevOps initiatives to work, they need support from the C-suite. With more companies focusing on products, not services, is the CTO the flagbearer of DevOps leadership?

Who is the modern CTO? Is it still a destination role? And what happens to DevOps leaders once they get there?

A number of early-stage businesses have come to me recently asking for help finding a CTO. Traditionally, that's fairly straightforward for a recruiter. Your CTO is your de-facto head of development. This is someone focused on the tech stack, not the business decisions. This is a senior executive responsible for managing an organization's technology requirements. It was always easy to imagine a prospective CTO at work, and, in the inflated and evolving C-suite, that was comforting. But that view is changing.

Suddenly, the requirements coming through are varying wildly, and the CTO isn't an easy professional to project. Why? The technology requirements of businesses now also vary to such a wide extent.

Industry sees the CTO as a DevOps leader

First of all, the industry now looks to the CTO as an innovation lightning rod. In the Harvey Nash Technology Survey 2018, we asked, "Who is driving innovation?" While 29% said the CTO, just 13% said the CIO. To me -- and, while I'm not a techy, I've spent over a decade talking to technology leaders -- the CIO has always been seen as the strategic leader of a business from a technology standpoint. Maybe our findings haven't contradicted that view, but strategy and innovation are -- in my mind at least -- synonymous.

The person who sets direction for an organization is likely to have the big-picture view that can lead to transformation programs. A CIO often comes from a business-facing role, where the agenda is focused on change. A CTO would be too caught up in the daily details to be an organizational change leader, or so I thought. It looks like the tech sector disagrees.

Product-oriented organizations

This broader agenda is chipping away at aspects of the CIO's role.

The new view of the CTO as the innovator in organizations comes about as many companies switch their focus from services to products.

Yes, service is still important and businesses -- especially B2C ones -- need to know who makes up their audience. But how do consumers interact with many organizations? They do so via an app, Amazon Echo or Google Home. We choose a service based on the product a business has built. How that business and product uses our data and tailors its offering to an individual is key to success. I recently read an article about how the gaming and betting industry makes extensive use of AI to drive sales. While it's a morally questionable activity, it is a great example of how technical requirements are altered by a consumer's interaction with a brand.

The CTO vs. CIO

The modern CTO often arrives with a product-focused skill set. This is a DevOps leader who is a developer by background, but doesn't necessarily have to be hands-on. If you want to be a CTO today, get the portfolio for product development and management on your CV, and you will be in-demand as a DevOps leader. That means making strategic decisions that directly affect the user experience. The development team might also be spread across different locations, and that means a CTO is also now concerned with choices affecting culture and talent. This broader agenda is chipping away at aspects of the CIO's role.

What's really interesting to me is that there are plenty of startup CTOs who then want to become a CIO. They feel that their CTO role lacks the business opportunities to demonstrate they can sit at the very top of the tree.

In the past, the CIO and CTO worked together, though each position required different skill sets. I've been in multiple legacy organizations where both roles mattered, but neither could fill the other's shoes. The modern CTO role in DevOps organizations is evolving. DevOps CTOs bring the business vision to life, but can aspire to more. The CTO post isn't the final stop of this DevOps evolution. Now, the CTO is taking away duties from the traditional CIO and nipping at their heels, pushing an organization to new heights.

This was last published in July 2018

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