How to be a CTO | Career Guide

Gerald Lombardo

Gerald Lombardo
January 04, 2023 6 min read

So you want to be a CTO? Maybe you’re fresh out-of-college considering the heights of your future career, or maybe you’re a mid-level manager already well on your way. Regardless of your current situation, if your dream role is to become a CTO, then the first thing to know is that YES, it’s an achievable goal. Like all ambitious goals it requires diligence, patience, and no small degree of commitment. But if technical work is what you enjoy then there’s no reason this “work” can’t be enjoyable and fulfilling.

If CTO is what you want, the next question you’re likely to ask is how? As in, how to be CTO? What do you need to know, what credentials do you need, what are the most important skills, and what does the day-to-day life of a Chief Technical Officer look like? 

You’re in the right place, and Popl is here to help. Here’s everything you need to know about how to be a CTO. 

how to be a CTO

What is a CTO?

A Chief Technology Officer (CTO) is a high-level executive who is responsible for the technical strategy and direction of a company. The CTO is typically responsible for the development and implementation of new technologies that will help the company achieve its business goals. This can include everything from developing new products or services to implementing new software systems to streamline business processes. The CTO works closely with other executives and departments within the company to ensure that the company's technical resources are being used effectively and efficiently.

What does a CTO do?

A company’s Chief Technology Officer usually has varied responsibilities including everything from determining the best email systems to complex decisions around manufacturing technology, and more. The core of what a CTO does, then, is choose the right technologies for their company and then optimize those technologies within the organization. As far as day-to-day, this can include the following responsibilities:

  • Developing and implementing the technical vision and strategy of the company.
  • Overseeing the research and development of new technologies and products.
  • Managing the technical aspects of the company's business operations.
  • Ensuring that the company's technical infrastructure is robust and secure.
  • Working with other executives to align the company's technical strategy with its business goals.
  • Managing the budget for the company's technical resources and projects.
  • Hiring, training, and developing the technical team.
  • Staying up-to-date on industry trends and emerging technologies.
  • Communicating the company's technical vision and strategy to employees, stakeholders, and the public.

Steps to being a CTO

Unlike the more “formal” CFO position, for instance, many CTOs take untraditional routes to the executive suite. Especially within tech-startups, CTOs often rise from early developers, into leaders of coding teams to, finally, the position of CTO.

digital business cards for CTOs

On the other hand, in larger, more established companies the CTO position requires a seasoned, dedicated hand - not necessarily someone who “gets their hands dirty,” but, rather, a professional who understands technical strategy and how to implement systems across large organizations. In either case, here are some actions you can take to help become a CTO:

  • If you’re after a CTO position at a large corporation, consider earning, at least, a bachelor's degree in a technical field like computer science, engineering, or information technology.
  • Gain experience in the field, either through internships, co-op programs, or entry-level positions.
  • Consider earning a master's degree or a PhD in a related field, which can help you stand out from other candidates and demonstrate your expertise.
  • Build a strong network of professionals in the industry, including other CTOs, as this can help you learn about job opportunities and get valuable advice.
  • Develop your leadership and management skills, as CTOs are often responsible for leading and managing technical teams.
  • Keep up with the latest technologies and industry trends, as CTOs are expected to stay up-to-date on the latest developments in their field.
  • Consider getting certified in a specific technology or area of expertise, which can help you demonstrate your expertise and credibility to potential employers.

CTO skills

Here are some important skills for being a CTO:

  • Technical expertise: As a CTO, you will be responsible for leading the technical direction of the company, so it is important to have a strong understanding of a wide range of technologies and how they can be applied in the business.
  • Leadership: As a CTO, you will be responsible for leading and managing a team of technical professionals. It is important to have strong leadership skills to be able to motivate and manage your team effectively.
  • Communication: CTOs must be able to communicate complex technical concepts to a wide range of audiences, including non-technical employees, stakeholders, and the public.
  • Strategic thinking: As a CTO, you will be responsible for developing and implementing the technical vision and strategy of the company. It is important to have strong strategic thinking skills to be able to anticipate industry trends and make informed decisions.
  • Problem-solving: CTOs must be able to think critically and identify solutions to complex technical problems.
  • Project management: CTOs often manage multiple projects and initiatives simultaneously, so it is important to have strong project management skills to be able to prioritize tasks and meet deadlines.
  • Business acumen: CTOs must have a strong understanding of how technology can support and drive the business, so it is important to have a solid understanding of business concepts and principles.

How much do CTOs make?

The short answer is it depends - or, rather, that it varies widely. According to data from Glassdoor, however, the median annual salary for a CTO in the United States is $165,000 per year. In large companies this amount can be dramatically higher and can (and often does) include performance-based compensation or bonuses. 

Famous Chief Technology Officers

Looking for inspiration? Here are some famous CTOs from the past who can help you understand the position and, perhaps, offer some good advice.

  • John Carmack: American computer programmer and video game developer. He co-founded the video game company id Software and was the lead programmer of its 1990s games
  • Padmasree Warrior: Known for her leadership roles in technology firms like Cisco and Motorola, Warrior is has one of the most diverse and impressive CTO resumes imaginable. 
  • Bobby Murphy: Snapchat’s co-founder and the CTO Bobby Murphy is the epitome of a silicon valley startup-CTO. Murphy helped build Snapchat from the ground up, rising to the rank of CTO. 

Best resources for aspiring CTOs

The best thing you can do as an aspiring CTO is to learn by doing. Choose a few technologies - whether these are programming languages, software or manufacturing tools, andmasterthem. Based on this mastery it will become clear to you where and how you can contribute to the organization you’re currently in or how you can start side-hustles of your own. Further development of your career and other resources to help you along can include:

  • Professional organizations: Consider joining a professional organization, such as the Association of CTOs (ACT-IAC) or the CTO Forum, which can provide networking opportunities, access to industry events and conferences, and resources for professional development.
  • Online communities: Join online communities, such as LinkedIn groups or forums, where you can connect with other CTOs and technical professionals. These communities can be a great source of advice and support as you work towards your goal of becoming a CTO.
  • Professional development courses: Consider taking professional development courses or earning additional certifications to help you build your skills and knowledge. There are many online courses and programs available that can help you learn new technologies and develop your leadership skills.
  • Mentorship: Seek out a mentor who is a CTO or has experience in a CTO role. A mentor can provide valuable guidance and support as you work towards your career goals.
  • Networking events: Attend industry events and conferences, where you can meet other professionals and learn about the latest trends and technologies. These events can also be a great opportunity to make connections and build your network.

How to be a CTO | Conclusion

best CTO digital business card

If you’ve read this far, congratulations, you’re on the road to becoming a CTO. Yes, the early steps are that easy. As the saying goes a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Remember, though do not fall into the trap of excessive research or reading ortheory. Learn by doing - get your hands dirty and master the technologies that will best help you NOW. This is the simplest and clearest first step toward becoming a CTO. 


Good luck!



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