CIO vs. CTO: Differentiating Two Important Executive Positions

Subsets of industry have classified themselves as “technology companies” since the postwar emergence of commercializable computation. As competition caused R&D budgets to balloon, the need arose for a C-level position dedicated to managing innovation: the chief technology officer (CTO). This role experienced a hefty boost with the ascent of Silicon Valley and again with the arrival of the internet.

The outcome of much of that innovation was products that offered new dimensions of both opportunity and complexity to sectors that had previously not counted technology among their primary concerns. Thus, even so-called old economy businesses came to depend on new economy products to compete.

This new reality, in turn, sparked the need for another C-level position: chief information officer (CIO).

“There are no longer non-technical businesses,” says BJ Vanderlinden, CIO of Larry H. Miller Sports and Entertainment. “Every company has to be a technology company. So, you might be a manufacturing company—but in reality you’re a technology company that has manufacturing capabilities. And the role of CIO is to understand how technology can accelerate the strategy and objectives of an organization and how it can impact a business, because for the rest of the business folks, it’s impossible to have an expectation that they get that.”

Thus, the CTO is an outward-facing position with an eye toward developing technologies to meet market needs outside the enterprise, while the CIO is an inward-facing position charged with managing information technologies that meet business needs within the enterprise.

Asking the right questions

This duality places hefty demands on the position, as a successful CIO must keep a foot planted firmly in each of two frequently opposing worlds.

“I have hundreds of individuals who work for me and sometimes they’re technical and sometimes not, and I need to know how to interface with both,” says USANA CIO Walter Noot. “I think I have an ability to do that. I can explain very hard things we’re doing in a simple way, and sometimes I have to speak in front of 20,000 people.”

In this sense, Noot posits, arriving at the position with more traditional business than technical training provides the CIO with a substantial advantage.

Vanderlinden agrees, saying, “One of the benefits that I have, having not been in any one of those typical roles of developer or network engineer, is I understand how technology can impact the business but I don’t need to understand exactly the details. The challenge I see within a lot of my peers—especially those who have come up through data center ranks or technology ranks and have been those people—the reality is, they are very partial to where they are most comfortable. And it becomes difficult to see the entire picture sometimes. Rather than being able to separate themselves, they tend to be attracted to the one area [they’re] most comfortable in.”

It’s that ability to see technology as a means to an end, as opposed to the end itself, that often sets the CIO apart from her CTO counterparts.

“I always go back to the simple questions because typically these are the things a technology geek misses,” says Noot. “You kind of miss all of the really easy stuff that leave customers wondering ‘why do you guys do it that way?’”

Noot says he applies three questions to technical innovations—particularly those that are customer facing—which the typical CTO is more likely to apply in reverse.

“There are three things we have to do, and they go in this order: first, systems have to work for customers. Second, they have to be easy to use and intuitive. And third, then you can add cool stuff to it,” he says.

Noot points out that those who see innovation opportunities through the lens of a technologist will often place the higher value on adding something novel, at the expense of the customer’s experience.

“There are no longer non-technical businesses. Every company has to be a technology company. So, you might be a manufacturing company—but in reality you’re a technology company that has manufacturing capabilities. And the role of CIO is to understand how technology can accelerate the strategy and objectives of an organization and how it can impact a business.” – BJ Vanderlinden, CIO, Larry H. Miller Sports and Entertainment.

Keeping organized

That’s not to say there’s no room for a technologist in the role of CIO. Andrew Burchett, CIO at UHIN, came up through the ranks in a path more typical of a CTO, including time spent in network engineering and systems architecture.

“I was offered the job here at UHIN as the CTO,” says Burchett, who went on to explain why a company like UHIN would be better served by a CIO. “They did some research on a CTO versus CIO and agreed with me that the CIO was more fitting. They saw that there is some of the building of new technologies, but more on the operations side.”

As for what makes for a good CIO, Burchett takes a view distinct from both Noot and Vanderlinden, both of which favor right brain thinking.

“You have to have an operations background to be a good CIO. A CTO is probably more of a free spirit, more creative and innovative, whereas the CIO needs to be more organized and be able to streamline and see how things flow between systems,” Burchett says.

For Vanderlinden, one key to success in the CIO role is avoiding getting lost in the rabbit hole of details. “The CIO has to span the gap between technology and the business, and with the rate of change that happens in technology, it is impossible for someone in a senior leadership role to stay on top of everything that’s changing. That’s why I have people who are much smarter than I am and let them do their job while I paint the picture of strategy,” he says.

On that topic, USANA’s Noot firmly agrees, saying, “I trust my teams to do good, smart things. That’s the most important thing a CIO can do: surround yourself with a great team.”

Judd Bagley is a Lehi, Utah based marketing and communications professional who launched his career in journalism, temporarily leaving that calling to raise a family. He always vowed to return to journalism, he is.