March - 2007 - issue > Sage Speak
Dr. Jeffrey Jaffe
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
The role of a CTO is diverse, and spans numerous fields. However, if I were to pick out the major differentiators that tell a good CTO from a mediocre one, it would essentially be dealing with the three words that constitute the acronym: Chief, Technology and Officer.

A CTO has, as his middle name, Technology. His job involves overseeing a gamut of applications. As such he must have a pulse for technology, and but not be enamored with a single tech platform. This I learnt the hard way when I was the VP of technology in one of my earlier assignments. We carried out a study to assess the number of technologies a particular segment of the industry depended on, and the number went well past 500. Practically, it is not possible for a CTO to be conversant with the nitty-gritty of each of the technologies, but he must posses a broad overview on how they interact and depend on each other.

Next we come to Officer: It is essential for a CTO to interpret technology in terms of the impact it will have on the company’s business. The officer, as he is, will need to indulge in scenario planning, and figure out what will become more or less important from a customer’s viewpoint. For example, while working on an identity management system, the R&D team under me was busy finding ways to strengthen the authentication quotient of the application, whereas the customers were more than happy with the authentication abilities; they wanted the software to better fit into the workflow. It is essential that a CTO finds such linkage points, and reins them in into the company’s business strategy.
Thirdly, and chiefly, a CTO needs to focus on his Chief duty: that of being a good listener. There is no monopoly in knowledge or insight, and it is impossible for one person to know everything, even about his own domain. The moment one is struck by the feeling of being a know-all, it’s the end of him. A CTO must listen to customers to identify, as mentioned earlier, the linkage points. He must also listen to the engineers and the sales teams to identify how something relates to business needs. Without this chief quality, one can never become a good CTO. For it is hara-kiri to lie in one’s own opinion exclusively. After all, the ostrich never saved itself by digging its head into the sand!

The author is Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Novell. He can reached at jjaffe@novell.com.

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