Meet Your New Digital Leader: Your CTO

Image credit: iStockphoto/Nuthawut Somsuk

Chief technology officers (CTOs) are often seen as hard-working plumbers in the background.

Their biggest concern is whether the infrastructure runs like a well-oiled machine or is about to break down. Often reporting to the chief information officer, they are concerned with how well the infrastructure can remain fully operational.

As with everything, 2020 turned the role of the CTO upside down. Now, they are being asked to take the lead on empowering remotely-located employees with workplace technology, making supply chains resilient to further supply chain shocks, and driving security and agility in the same breath. But are they ready?

For Emma Pudney, chief technology officer for APJ at Rackspace Technology, it varies. And it comes down to how well CTOs realize the new reality.

“The CTO role has been behind the scenes; they work with their IT infrastructure to keep the business running. The pandemic is forcing CTOs to really step up into the forefront into a more public-facing role,” she explained.

One primary driver is remote working. Previously an administrative task, CTOs are now in charge of deploying the right workplace tech, ensuring digital collaboration, and preparing the infrastructure for e-commerce. Knowing the technology is no longer enough; they need to show a strategic IT plan.

Pudney noted these demands put CTOs in unfamiliar territory. “They now need to convince the senior management team that they are under control.”

When security becomes everyone’s matter

Another related area that has fallen on the CTO lap is security.

While the CTO was always concerned about security, it was the chief information security officer (CISO) responsible for it.

The pandemic blurred this line when network security and access control became everyone’s concern when the workforce worked outside the corporate security perimeters.

So, [CTOs] have to think much more intensely around things like PC security control, VPN, and all those sorts of things. From that perspective, there’s a real need to focus on security, but that’s not the only security lens that needs to be considered,” said Pudney.

An additional security issue is the speed at which companies are implementing new digital technologies. The rushed implementations of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), for example, exposed security holes in authentication and data security that threat actors are exploiting.

To close these holes, CTOs had to work closely with both business teams, CISOs and vendors, while explaining to the C-suite why these vulnerabilities are relevant. This makes collaboration and communication key traits for CTOs — traits they were not initially hired for.

Pudney highlighted two other areas where CTOs are now becoming their job remit: cloud and digital transformation.

Both are areas where the chief digital officers are focused. Now CTOs need to drive the digital agenda for these two areas “from the perspective of future-proofing the business,” she explained. This means that CTOs share part of the digital remit and are partly responsible for their companies’ digitalization strategies.  

“As you know, at the drop of a hat, we may have to go remote again. How can a CTO make sure that the business is transformed and agile enough to do that? It requires all infrastructure, applications, and services to be future-proofed.”

This requires CTOs to collaborate and influence to drive this while being mindful of the business needs and ambitions.  

That fear of losing control

CTOs are famed for being strict gatekeepers of their companies’ IT infrastructure. Total control of the infrastructure is always a key focus.

However, as companies go cloud-first to become more agile and data-centric, the idea of total control is changing.

It is not that they are losing control, but rather how CTOs control their infrastructure has changed.

“A distinction I’d like to make is that it is not outside their control,” said Pudney. Instead, she explained that while today’s cloud infrastructure is not within the corporate domain, the CTO still retains management control

“In fact, if you talk to any cloud infrastructure providers, [they talk about] a shared responsibility model. From that perspective, I would say it is not so much about control but having a new delivery model.”

In such an environment, the CTO needs to start becoming a business partner to the organization. Pudney suggested they should drive automation and self-services so that they can focus on managing their infrastructure better.  

This quest for a new delivery model is also shaping a new conversation between CTOs and their solution providers. And vendors, such as Rackspace Technology, are doubling down their efforts to help CTOs answer their new challenges through consultation and collaboration.

At the same time, Pudney noted that CTOs need to make it easier for businesses to transact or engage them.

Once you place yourself as an obstacle [to business users], they are going to get around you. That’s why shadow IT exists in the first place. But by making it easier for people to transact with you and your department, there will be a better business and IT alignment,” said Pudney.

This alignment has never been so critical as it is now as companies face existential questions.

Image credit: iStockphoto/Nuthawut Somsuk