Filling the technical gap for the C-suite

Is your company doing okay, but being held back from taking the next step in growth?

Is your team held together with people who are knowledgeable, committed and in-tune with your customers – but frustrated and delayed by the IT systems they have to use?

Do you see your competition taking big steps forward in areas like moving to the cloud or using data analysis, but are not sure about how to do it yourself? That’s to be expected if you are not a technology company, right?

Server with multiple cables coming out of it and flashing lights

Here’s the thing. It’s become a cliche that today every company needs to be a tech company – but it is true, to varying degrees. You don’t necessarily need to rush out and acquire knowledge akin to the next-big-thing AI start-up. But even if your business is delivering traditional products or customer services, if you use any computer-based system or have any amount of online or social presence, then you will need to have some understanding of the technology behind these. Otherwise you will miss out on opportunities to optimise your efficiency and improve your customer engagement.

The ongoing global pandemic has particularly highlighted the impact that a lack of technology foresight and leadership can have on a business. Many companies have rushed to accommodate working from home, to varying degrees of success. Well-prepared companies have been able to continue to function online, whereas those who were behind the technology curve have struggled to enable staff to communicate and work from many different locations.

The UK clothes retailer Primark, a subsidiary of AB Foods, has recently reported sales dropping from £650M per month to £0 per month. Since the lockdown, Primark has had literally zero sales income because it only sold its clothing products through physical stores and not online. This technology decision (or indecision) will have major consequences to the business, possibly for years after the lockdown has been lifted. Even as far back as 2013, econsultancy wrote that “[Primark’s] figures mean that Primark doesn’t necessarily need to be in a hurry to open up an ecommerce site, as it still has room for growth offline. However, there will come a point when it has no more room for expansion and this, in combination with the switch to online shopping, is likely to force its hand”.

Display of t-shirts on a shop floor

Why do you need technology leadership in the C-suite?

C-suite technology leadership doesn’t necessarily mean you have to know every inner working of the technology you use, or understand the bleeding edge on the horizon. Your organisation needs to know enough to make sound decisions and investments to safeguard and grow your business.

There is a balance between the need for teams to select the right technology for their circumstances and the need for consistency of tooling to reduce operating costs and complexities. For example, there is usually little need for teams to use five different applications for generic tasks such as videoconferencing or project management and reporting; good technology leadership would have the conversations with teams about their particular needs and find the right balance between this specificity and the use of extra tools.

Woman writing on a piece of paper with a laptop, while others stand and watch

Conversely, the use of an innovative application or technology may unlock opportunities or growth potential in other areas of the business; C-suite technology leadership helps to spot and exploit these opportunities.

As the role of business technology has evolved, so has the role of the technology leader, most commonly represented by the Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Previously seen as the link between business and technology, the modern CTO must go beyond this, to unite business with technology in such a way that technology is thought of as an integral part of the business.

What does good technology leadership look like?

Historically, it has been relatively easy to downplay the need for technology leadership, but it is crucial for success in a digital business environment. For an organisation that is looking to make better use of technology, it is important that this technology is:

  • Integral to the business plan and the company
  • Coherent and integrated across the business
  • Easy to use for both end users (service consumers) and middle users (service providers)
  • Appropriate and affordable, both for now and in future

Roles and responsibilities of a CTO

A technology leader is a strategic role, separate from hands-on, low-level development and delivery, but not isolated from it. It is a specialised role; in the same way as distinct expertise is needed for a Chief Financial Officer or Legal Counsel, so a Chief Technology Officer has a unique set of skills to bring to the boardroom.

A CTO could usually be expected to be responsible for aspects of the business such as:

Governance and oversight of critical systems and technology portfolio, including:
  • Business systems
  • Technology decisions
  • Service Level Agreements (SLAs)
  • Team structures
  • IT project management and delivery
  • Testing strategies
  • Data quality and maintenance
  • Championing user-centredness, feedback, iterative working, use of appropriate metrics
  • Corporate learning in the technology space
  • Bringing the business together around technology, across all departments
Driving the technology roadmap for the business to keep it relevant and enable growth, including:
  • Owning Rough Order of Magnitude (ROM) costings, business cases, and Return on Investment (ROI)
  • Horizon scanning and technology Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis
Maintaining and developing technology partnerships and relationships, e.g.
  • Content delivery
  • Business systems

Other key technology leadership skills

Good technology leadership is able to quickly learn about the business, its customers, its market, competitive environment, threats and opportunities – and then answer the question of what technology should mean to this business to take best advantage of all of these. The ability to tie technology decisions closely into business objectives is paramount – as is the often overlooked ability to communicate with staff and teams to build a shared vision and understanding of the technology changes to be undertaken.

Group of people writing on post-it notes at a table

Technical knowledge is only a part of a good CTO; they need excellent soft skills such as collaboration, stakeholder management, empathy and decision making. Knowledge of each audience and multi-level communication skills is also vital, as a change can only be as good as the two-way communication that accompanies it. This means that a CTO will need excellent communication from the high-level C-suite interactions, across technology partners and relationships, right through to detailed conversations with individuals about “what is in it for me?”. This is a rare skill, often overlooked in favour of deep technical knowledge – that can then struggle to be communicated effectively.

A key part of technology leadership is to advise and influence the business on how technology can deliver benefits worthy of the investment. Looking back at Primark in 2013, no leader could have envisaged the exact events of the coronavirus pandemic. But most large businesses will have some form of major event as part of their risk register. A good technology leader would regularly look at that and other risks; they would evaluate and promote how technology can mitigate against these risks, make the case for the investment, and have governance over the delivery of both the technology and the benefits. Certainly if Primark had taken a different approach and embraced online retail in 2013, then its current downturn would be unlikely to have been quite so catastrophic.

Business continuity recovery plan

Major events should inform your business’ Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity plans

What does this mean for your Board?

C-suite technology leadership is a high-value, in-demand specialisation. The ability to cover a wide range of technologies combined with business acumen, opportunity awareness and great communication and leadership is a relatively rare combination. Not every business can afford, or even need, a permanent full-time CTO.

However, bringing in flexible board-level expertise is a perfectly usual situation for many businesses. Increasingly, functions such as Human Resources are being outsourced to service providers, and while not all businesses have a dedicated legal counsel working for them, many have an external lawyer whom they know and trust. These are very frequent arrangements, with a common theme that companies can cost-effectively outsource board-level, business-critical specialties that are not part of their core offering.

This same model can be applied to the technology space, and a “CTO as a Service” (CTOaaS) offering can help businesses that would benefit from strong technology leadership but cannot justify the investment in, or have the expertise to hire, a permanent full-time CTO.

What are the benefits of CTOaaS?

CTO as a Service is much more than simply hiring a contractor, many of whom may want a fixed-term, likely full-time contract. This means that while you can reduce cost over a permanent CTO, the expertise and “service” you get is all in one lump, for a fixed amount of time. After that, your technology leadership leaves the business, and while some knowledge may have been transferred, you are essentially back to square one.

Can your business handle a sudden influx of technology leadership and change? Just as importantly, can it handle the sudden exit of the same? This can work well for fire-fighting, when you have a technology emergency in the business which is the top priority to sort out as soon as possible. But it does not help so much for the longer-term vision and growth of the business.

Post-it note on wall with 'What?', 'How?' and 'Why' written on it

Engaging with CTO as a Service brings a number of key benefits for a business. The access to technology leadership can be phased in gradually to help with organisational change management. This can be achieved through a tailored CTOaaS programme, for example a monthly retainer for a certain minimum number of days per month, working to an agreed, but not necessarily narrow, remit.

The level of support can be ramped up or down in line with your business programmes and changes to circumstances. The “service” aspect of CTOaaS can extend to upskilling and knowledge transfer for your existing permanent staff, whether working directly in technology or in adjacent areas. For example, this can range from day-to-day process improvements such as Agile project management, through to mentoring and development of potential technology leadership staff, and many other aspects. CTOaaS can also come with a known and agreed exit strategy, to leave the business tangibly better off in both the short- and long-term.

Possibly the biggest benefit of CTOaaS is the enhanced access to knowledge and expertise on offer. Hiring a CTO, either permanently or as a contractor, gives you access to the experience and knowledge of just that person. CTOaaS gives you access to the combined expertise and experience of an entire technology organisation, way beyond what is accessible to even the most able of individuals.

Two men having a discussion at a table, one with a laptop

When you have a problem, a good CTOaaS provider will likely have seen something similar and know what to do, or have access to that experience, as well as to the sort of innovative, creative problem-solving skills that will allow you to tackle something new and different. This level of service and legacy-on-exit can be obtained for less than the investment of a permanent CTO, giving you an affordable, accessible edge over your competitors.

In conclusion

Whatever your business’ involvement with technology, for your investments to be fruitful you need some level of technology leadership. The responsibilities of this technology leader are wide and diverse; some may already be covered within your organisation, but many may not.

If you’re looking to bring these skills in though there is a flexible model for doing so, in the form of CTO as a Service – which can provide you with a powerful technology voice in the areas it’s needed most, to support short-term initiatives as well as long-term growth.

About the Author

Andrew Beaney

Andrew is Box UK’s Managing Consultant, specialising in coaching and consultancy, Agile Business Analysis and Product Ownership, team leadership and change management. He has a track record of delivering technical advice and reducing business risk, working with a broad range of information systems and technologies for over 20 years.