The Evolving Role of the CTO

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Throughout my nearly 50-year career, I’ve held the position of chief technology officer for 15 of those years, spanning several companies. Throughout this time, I’ve seen the role of CTOs evolve in response to rapidly accelerating technological innovation and the shifting imperatives of companies and their stakeholders. One of my biggest takeaways from my time as CTO is: To bring the most value to your company, you need to adapt to changing demands, customer requirements and conditions.

In game theory there’s an idea that if you knew ahead of time how the game would end, you would make different decisions during the game. If you knew the exact probabilities of every potential outcome, you would play the odds with every decision, and the game would have the best chance of ending exactly how you wanted it an optimal state. This concept is called the Expected Value of Perfect Information or EVPI.

In life we don’t have a crystal ball. However, that doesn’t mean that CTOs can’t make informed decisions that take into account the constant change happening inside and outside their organizations. Thomas Bayes, a philosopher and statistician in the 1700s introduced a theorem that helps reassign probabilities to decision nodes as new information comes in. CTOs must think Bayesian, Here are four things for CTOs and industry/government leaders should keep in mind in a world of constant disruption.

Cybersecurity isn’t just your problem

A big lesson I’ve learned is to engage with leaders beyond the CTO and CIO functions to discuss cybersecurity imperatives. Regardless of where you work, cybersecurity is not just an isolated issue for IT support. It affects every facet of operations. When I hear an employee say, “interesting, but cyber security is not my job”, I recoil. Cyber is a team effort.  Everyone contributes. This is an issue that requires proactively coaching your colleagues and other leaders about cybersecurity risks to increase awareness of cybersecurity as a collective responsibility. By encouraging active participation from all leaders, we can make strides to foster a culture where everyone understands the importance of protecting our digital assets. Cybersecurity is an effort that transcends departments. We are more secure when we break down these silos and barriers.

Seek out opportunities to learn about emerging technologies

I’ve been in the tech world for almost 50 years. I wouldn’t have survived for so long if I didn’t have an appetite for continued learning. In order to stay on top of the latest ideas and innovations, it’s crucial to attend industry events, listen to experts and embrace new solutions that help you and your teams adapt to new technologies. I attend Black Hat, DefCon and S4 conferences every year to learn the latest hacking and penetration methods from the experts.

As you learn about new technologies, keep in mind that they’re not ends in themselves; they’re tools for making our lives better. Take artificial intelligence. AI isn’t creating artificial knowledge, it’s augmenting human intelligence by synthesizing data in innovative ways. In other words, it’s not about machines making decisions, it’s about helping people make better decisions faster.

Embrace new solutions

Tech issues are evolving, but so are solutions. I recently had a conversation with a lawyer who argued that people are overpaying for cyber insurance because there are actually cybersecurity solutions out there that are extremely effective. If you can do the research and figure out the solutions that are best for your company, that’s a whole lot better than sticking your head in the sand and hoping you don’t get hit by a cybercriminal.

And the great thing about finding new solutions in one area? You’ve got the financial and people resource flexibility to start addressing other IT concerns.

Respond to the unique needs of your organization

Not only is the role of the CTO constantly changing, but it also differs from person to person and organization to organization. Depending on your company and interests, you may be focused on creating a roadmap to transition your company into the next era of IT, or you may be focused on encouraging product innovation.

Likewise, it matters whether you’re in the public or private sector. If you work for a government agency, there’s a good chance you’ll want to focus on modernizing digital operations to ensure your organization and partners have the most advanced tools and technologies for a seamless experience. Even though governments have some significant budget constraints, there focus is on their mission and serving their customers.  Industry always has one eye on the bottom line.

To do your job as a CTO, you need to bring a broad range of capabilities to the table, including technical knowledge, communication skills, and an ability to think about the big picture with an eye toward concrete outcomes. However, it might be the case that no skill is as important as agility: the ability to assess the particular needs of your organization at a particular moment, and to change your tools and tactics over time to accomplish long-term goals.

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