Chief technology officers, not unlike your grandma, have mastered the art of knitting.
For the most part their bodies seem calm, their gaze steely and focused. But within their hands is a set of needles flitting furiously as different stitches, colours and yarns meld together to form a pattern that either flows perfectly or, quite literally, pulls apart at the seams.
And sometimes, as most CTOs who have ever had the task of uniting new software with a legacy business structure that resembles that of an Italian parliamentary meeting would know, that’s just about the best you can hope for.
But the business of being the chief technology officer in an enterprise has changed. Emphasis on the word business.
CTOs no longer just hold the knitting needles. Where once these leaders mainly inspired technology stack adoption and ruled over a sometimes unruly flock of developers or analysts that made it happen, they must now command a business acumen that not only keeps up with the rest of the leadership team but, at times, surpasses them.
In other words they have to be comfortable raising the flock, shearing the sheep and spinning the yarn before they even think about starting to knit. And that’s not even the hard part (but it is probably just about enough of the knitting metaphor).
1. They’re not just managers, they’re business architects
For chief tech officers it used to be a dance of two movements: adopt and administer products to make the business more efficient; adopt and administer infrastructure to ensure a solid foundation for operations. The vision was led by the CEO and chief technology officers, their willing lieutenants, carried out the orders within the parameters defined.
But things have shifted seismically.
Artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation, more business technology software offerings than one mere human can comprehend - knowing them intimately and understanding the marriage between their people, teams, the business objectives and the technology chirping at them is all part of the remit of the modern CTO.
All eyes are on them to not just know the names of technology solutions on the market, but to have a deep understanding of what makes them tick, what the value offering will be for the business and what risks they pose to existing systems before, during and after implementation and integration. And if a tech solution doesn’t perfectly match the needs of the business, creating one from scratch enters the game.
CEOs don’t have this knowledge; CTOs do. And they’re holding the keys.
CTOs are now the architects of modern businesses, which is a huge shift from merely adopting and implementing tech in a company. They have to take all of the skills, decisions, knowledge and insights mentioned above and prove, in real time, their effectiveness.
And in a day and age where businesses produce more internal reports than ever before, CTOs now also have to be comfortable in their ability to kill them off - replacing them with real time data-driven business intelligence systems that make decisions on the fly and implement business improvement rapidly.
2. Modern CTOs are killing off reports
We all use visualisations and dashboards. And we’ve all spent time moulding them into pages of reports that are then printed, emailed, filed and either sat on or actioned. At some point. Or not.
The days of sitting on a report and deciding to take action or not are done. Modern CTOs are taking that data and not just creating reports, but designing algorithms that can inspire action using data points as they happen.
It’s now a CTO’s job to intimately understand customer actions and create a layer of business intelligence that takes the insights data can provide and automate a response. They need to build engines that predict what customers or other stakeholders want to do after they take a certain action, or at least know from big data-sets what will probably happen next.
Companies such as Hitachi are using business intelligence technology and this way of thinking to optimise their customers’ billing and expenses management.
By understanding how active an organisation’s division is, what files they are using, where, and their previous trends of infrastructure and applications use, they are able to re-allocate storage to lower-cost facilities without disrupting user experience. For companies with huge datasets, document libraries and whole-of-organisation applications, this can save them hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
Imagine expanding the functionality above to give insights on what part of the business is most active, which topics and concepts are being worked on at what speed and by how many people. If this didn’t align to your company’s strategies - you could steer the ship back on course. B&D has been working on solutions like this over the past 12 months.
Being able to find those true insights and re-integrate them into process is a critical part of business improvement now. Because having all of that data is good but if you can't create actionable intelligence or actionable business insights out of it, it's kind of a waste of time, because no one really wants to read more reports. There's enough of those already.
And if you leave it to the reports, you’re submitting to the snail-paced ways of old. It's going to take too long to be responsive to what's going on in the business and in how you're interacting or working with customers. And that is poison in modern business.
3. The best CTOs know when to go bespoke
One word: custom. Yes, a CTO has become more of a process and business improvement person who uses technology because they're the only ones that really truly understand what technology can do. Being that translation point between what the business does, how it operates, what the vision of the business is, and then having a true understanding of the technology is vital.
But the things that will push businesses into the next level, those things that truly change the game, are not going to be products off the shelf.
Custom-built, intuitive systems will be the hallmark of how a modern chief technology officer melds real business and technology acumen, and with them profitable actions. They might be adaptations of numerous different products but they need to be thinking: “If I were to make a product that could do anything for my business, what would that product be?"
Are you truly pushing the limits of technological opportunity if you’re implementing the same products others are already adopting? It is not enough to keep pace with your market, you must beat it - and doing as others do is not how you get ahead.
But if you are going to go bespoke make sure the architecture is strong and utilises effective micro-services, you are managing agile with just the right amount of governance for speed and risk management, and you have a solid process for quality assurance and testing.
Bespoke used to be a dirty word but if you do it right and for justified business cases, you’ll often be able to deliver disruptive, targeted solutions quickly and at a lower cost. Bespoke doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel, it means best of breed, and sometimes that does include using or integrating existing products to leverage existing market technologies if it makes sense.
4. They help unite the tribe
On top of it all, they need to understand where their market is going and what customers want, what the other C-suite members bring to the table, and then match that with what technology can do and go in and implement things that are meaningful.
It needs to provide a provable return on investment or user experience improvements (which should affect revenue or employee productivity).
And they have to unite the entire C-suite to engage everyone in the business to crave improvement. Because innovation coming from just one or a few people won’t work.
It takes a tribe to move in the right direction and while CEOs should guide the culture, it is up to CTOs to drive the message that this is the right direction; this is what will take the business to the next level. And often, that can mean hiring, firing, redistributing and redirecting people all together.
Yes, the CTO is balancing all these things now. But it takes an engaged, bought-in group to make it all work. Great chief technology officers lead the conversation around the tribe.