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The CTO: IT's Chameleon

Is the CTO an R&D boss, a senior technologist, an IT visionary or a business insider? It depends.

By Mary K. Pratt
January 22, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Robert Wiseman and Sophie Vandebroek are both chief technology officers at Fortune 1,000 companies. But despite the common title, their jobs are quite different.

Wiseman, CTO at Sabre Holdings Corp., the Southlake, Texas, parent of several travel-related companies, handles the “bits and bytes of the technology” and reports to the CIO. Vandebroek, CTO at Xerox Corp. in Stamford, Conn., oversees a team of 600 researchers, engineers and scientists responsible for developing products to sell to Xerox’s customers. Although she doesn’t report to the CIO, Vandebroek works with many CIOs from other companies to dream up innovations for the commercial market.

There’s little ambiguity about the role of the CEO or the CFO at major companies, but ask what a CTO does, and you’re likely to get a variety of responses. In some companies, the CTO heads research and development. In other companies, the CTO is just like a CIO. In still others, the CIO reports to the CTO. And there are also CTOs who work in IT departments and report to the CIO.

“The use of the label depends on the company, the industry and a lot on the individual. There’s probably not any hard and fast rule on the title, but there are shades of color around it,” says Brian LeClaire, CTO at Humana Inc., a health benefits company in Louisville, Ky.

IT and More

Despite the diversity of approaches to the CTO role, this IT department executive is increasingly becoming the organization’s senior technologist, responsible not only for overseeing current technology assets but, more important, for developing a technology vision for the business. And while the job remains firmly rooted in those bits and bytes, now more than ever CTOs are expected to have the business knowledge that ties that technology vision to company’s mission, performance and financial goals.

“It’s not a simple job to understand all the technology out there,” says Fred Dillman, global CTO at Unisys Corp., an IT consulting company in Blue Bell, Pa. “Today the pace of change is so much faster, and businesses are becoming more and more dependent on technology. So the CTO is being asked to be the real expert in technology and understand what technologies will affect the business in the future and help determine when and where to invest.”

To be sure, CTOs have always been immersed in technology. But the use of the CTO title has shifted from one used almost exclusively for R&D-type executives, such as Vandebroek, to a designation for an organization’s leading technologist, wherever he resides, says Roger Smith, CTO for the U.S. Army Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation in Orlando.

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