Engineering leaders and chief technology officers (CTOs) have always been integral
in the development of new technologies and platforms. With digital transformation
and the growth of the Internet of Things, both roles are rising in prominence. No
longer isolated to the world of high tech, CTOs increasingly have a seat at the table,
especially in industrial, consumer and e-commerce companies where technology is
becoming the end product. As these roles become more strategic, it could become
more challenging for CEOs and general managers (GMs) to determine which skills
their organizations need going forward, especially if these roles are new to the
organization. In this article, we will explore the capabilities companies need to assess,
how to attract this limited pool of talent and common hiring mistakes to avoid.
Strategists, partners and talent magnets
For the CTOs and engineering leaders of today, technology expertise is not enough. While it’s vital that
these leaders remain fluent in the technical side, technology officers and heads of engineering must
possess a range of skills, from attracting top talent to deconstructing complex issues and translating them
into insights for the rest of the business.
Recruiter of rock stars
One talent partner with a global venture capital firm looks for portfolio company tech leaders who are
“only one step removed from writing code,” but who can also build a product and, arguably most important,
recruit and retain superstars. In a world where strong tech and engineering talent is scarce, a
leader’s ability to build top teams is critical — and valuable. “At the end of the day, a major component of
how companies are valued is by how well the leader can recruit and build an exceptional team,” he said.
Ability to speak the executive team’s language
CTOs and heads of engineering must be able
to act as problem-solvers and translators of
complex issues for the rest of the organization.
Leaders in these roles are being increasingly
called upon to understand and communicate
how technology impacts the business — and
generate support across functions in order to
help prioritize and pursue new opportunities.
This requires tech leaders who grasp the issues
that are most important to the executive team
and who can clearly explain technology issues
without getting mired in the backend complexities.
As one CTO advised, “You can’t talk to the
CEO about servers. You have to provide the big
picture and speak the executive team’s
language, not your own.”
Business partner and adviser
A clear indicator of the growing importance of
these roles is their evolution from implementers
to strategic partners and leaders. The dynamic
between technology and senior management
has shifted, with engineers and CTOs not simply
delivering on a vision, but proposing alternative
ways to achieve objectives.
At the same time they are conveying what’s
possible through technology, the best CTOs
and engineering leaders are able to listen to
myriad stakeholders and make decisions about
where to invest, balancing the needs of internal
and external clients, product complexity and
vendor relationships in an ever-evolving
ecosystem. The thread running through all
these interactions must be a passion for the
technology. Without an avid interest in technology,
a leader cannot fully dive into healthy
disagreements about direction and can instead
fall into the trap of managing internal politics
versus technology strategy — a circumstance
that can lead to a CTO’s downfall, according to
one senior executive.
CTO vs. engineering leader: Which
do you need?
When considering the need for a new
technical leadership role, it is important
to delineate the skills needed to drive the
specific outcomes required for the business.
For many companies, the decision often
comes down to whether — and when — to
hire a CTO or a senior engineering leader.
While titles, roles and responsibilities of technical
leaders often are interchanged, we offer
a few observations on these two key roles.
CTO: We typically see organizations seeking
a CTO when there is an increased emphasis
on product strategy and customer engagement.
CTOs bring strong technical expertise
complemented by an innovation mindset
and ability to drive strategic planning.
CTOs often are called upon to be “market
evangelists” and to serve as the face of the
company and product in the market.
Engineering leader: Also deeply technical,
engineering leaders often focus on increasing
the efficiency of product development,
improving processes and driving innovation.
With a strong results orientation, top
engineering leaders are passionate about
building teams and increasing the speed
and automation of development.
Engineering leaders work closely with CTOs
and product teams to translate strategic
planning into actionable delivery plans.
Excited by thorny problems and creative solutions
The former CEO of an online travel agency has
found that “good technical technology leaders
are excited by hard problems. Technologists like
a challenge. If it’s too easy, it’s going to be boring
to them.” The other side of the coin is innovative
problem-solving, which can be harder to assess.
Hands-on experience in research can be
evidenced by patents, publications and successful
new product roll-outs. Companies can also look
for leaders who have successfully established and
managed innovation and research organizations.
Potential over past performance
It is rare to find a CTO or engineering leader who
has exhibited the full range of hard and soft skills
necessary to succeed in the role. Thus, one chief
executive prioritizes potential over previous
performance. “I prefer to get the person who got
to a particular level with fewer years of career
experience than the person who reached the same
level with more years of career experience
because it’s a higher trajectory,” he said, noting
that the faster growth can indicate greater adaptability.
However, he acknowledges the trade-off is
that the leader may not have previously
performed certain tasks or worked at scale. To
help determine whether a candidate can rise to
the challenge, organizations need to ensure they
have a rigorous interviewing, assessment and
Common mistakes when recruiting a CTO or head of engineering
The shortage of CTOs and engineering leaders
combined with their growing strategic importance
has raised the stakes of the recruitment process.
Here are some common missteps organizations
- Assuming a brand name is enough to attract
top talent. CTOs are in high demand and
have their pick of industry-leading companies.
Organizations will need to provide more compelling
reasons for a tech rock star to join their ranks.
- Fishing in a limited pool. Some companies fall
into the trap of focusing their search for talent too
narrowly — for example, looking for niche technical
expertise or a background in a specific sector. Instead,
organizations should widen their scope and consider
candidates with tangential experience. The CTO of a
publishing company brought on the former head of
engineering from a leading media and entertainment
company. He also looks for talent from leading universities
and startups where leaders had to build something
from the ground up, and considers the banking
industry a rich source of infrastructure expertise.
- Ignoring a cultural mismatch or lack of
chemistry with the executive team. If the
leader cannot operate at the executive team level or does
not align with the culture, he or she cannot effectively
drive innovation and transformation. It’s that simple.
- Waiting too long to make an offer.
Organizations that drag out the hiring process in
search of the “perfect” leader risk losing out on strong
candidates in today’s highly competitive market.
- Not fully committing to technology as an
enterprise. Technology leaders want to work for
CEOs and organizations where technology is seen as
mission-critical. Even if the CEO is passionate about
technology, if leaders across functions are not, that is
a red flag for tech executives.
- Not providing growth opportunities.
Organizations that are successful at attracting top
talent shift individuals around to expose them to new
products and projects.
How success in these roles is measured
While the complex nature of CTO and engineering
roles can make success difficult to measure, organizations
can focus on three key areas:
- Delivery: Are we providing a high-quality product
on time and on budget?
- Innovation: Are we delivering innovative solutions
before our competitors? Are we building
disruptive products and platforms?
- Team: Have we been able to build a best-inclass
team? Do top technologists want to work
for us? Is this leader good at recruitment,
retention and performance management?
In addition to success in these three areas, another
marker of a high-performing CTO or head of engineering
is credibility among senior management and
Digital is enabling companies across industries to
build direct relationships with customers, elevating
the importance of technology and engineering
leaders. More organizations are realizing they
cannot outsource such a strategic role, and
demand for CTOs and engineering leaders continues
to grow dramatically. However, there is no
one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to technology
leadership. For some, separate technology
and engineering functions can create a healthy
tension that ultimately improves the product; due
to their structures and scale, other organizations
combine the CTO and head of engineering roles.
In an era where technology has far-reaching implications
for the business, it has become clear that
technical skill-sets are only part of the equation.
Organizations need CTOs and engineering leaders
with the ability to communicate complex
concepts, act as partners to senior management,
garner support for investments in innovation, and
attract and build top teams. Many organizations
will need to rethink their traditional assumptions
in the race for today’s “star athletes” or risk being
on the losing side.