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the career path to CTO: what it takes to become a top technologist

6 min readpublished 31 March 2022updated 15 September 2022
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The Chief Technology Officer (CTO) is a prestigious executive position. At that level, you bear the responsibility for every aspect of an organization's technological needs — which is no small feat. As a C-suite executive, you play several roles in the company, offering guidance on strategy, short-term and long-term forecasting, customer relations, and capital investments.

The CTO is a function so it varies greatly from company to company. What is likely to be true across the board, however, is that a CTO is a seasoned technologist who knows how to build and lead teams.

Pavel Veller
Pavel VellerCTO, Chief Technologist, EPAM Anywhere

With that type of impact on a company's direction, many consider the CTO position the pinnacle of success. The role also provides substantial benefits:

  • Top salary possibilities
  • Equity or shareholder offerings
  • Leadership opportunities
  • Reputation development and recognition
  • Enterprise-level goal achievement

Let's examine what the Chief Technology Officer role entails and how you can best prepare for your software engineering career path to CTO.

So, how do you earn such a coveted position?

How close are you to being a true leader for your team?
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What does a Chief Technology Officer do?

The CTO oversees the entire technology or engineering department of an organization. A CTO focuses on projects that apply to external business growth rather than internal processes (the Chief Information Officer handles those tasks). Some businesses do not have a CIO, and those situations generally include an expanded set of responsibilities for the CTO.

As a C-suite member with a focus on technology, your tasks would cover four primary business pillars:

  • Infrastructure: You will oversee all aspects of data, security, network, and all other engineering elements within an organization.
  • Strategy: You will create, outline, and administer a central technical vision that supports a company’s operations.
  • Priority customer relations: You will act as a primary liaison to customers and address the needs of target markets.
  • Technology leadership: You will report directly to the CEO or members of the board on all matters relating to corporate strategy, IT markets, and technology.

There was no specific point when I realized that I wanted to become a CTO. It just happened. I was growing and maturing as a technologist and as a leader and, at some point, was offered an opportunity to become a CTO of our digital practice. CTO is a title, a function. Don’t overthink it.

Pavel Veller
Pavel VellerCTO, Chief Technologist, EPAM Anywhere

Typical education requirements and career tracks

A CTO is often a highly educated individual. The majority of CTOs have a bachelor's and master’s degree in computer science or another related field.

In addition, you will need to pursue extended professional development and additional certifications. Most CTOs spend a significant amount of time as a senior software engineer while they build up their credentials. It is important that you maintain both your leadership skills and technical abilities at peak performance levels.

If there’s a single trait that’s an absolute must for a CTO, it’s empathy. You do need to be a skilled, experienced engineer but, because it is a leadership role, most of the solutions will be in the “people” domain or at least at the intersection of people and technology. Apart from empathy, it’s about owning your mistakes, strategic thinking, enabling others, and active listening.

Pavel Veller
Pavel VellerCTO, Chief Technologist, EPAM Anywhere

The CTO position requires extensive experience. A common expectation for applicants is 15 years in the field, often in several different IT fields such as web development or big data.

To reach that pinnacle, you will need to pursue a managerial track. There is an expectation of at least five to seven years of experience in a supervisory role. The selection process for a CTO puts a clear emphasis on the cultivation and demonstration of leadership skills.

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Common skill sets and leadership traits of a CTO

While more weight is given to the skills associated with the managerial career tracks, a CTO must also have proficiency with the technical aspects of software engineering.

The technical skills: Since every element of the company’s IT infrastructure falls within the CTO purview, considerable expertise is required. You may have to manage certain applications or technologies used within the organization at an advanced level. Knowing the fundamentals of software development and programming is crucial.

The managerial skills: A CTO also needs to lead different teams across varied departments. Superior decision-making is necessary, as well as the ability to provide guidance on big picture topics such as market trends, IT budgets, and long-term strategy. Also important are the soft skills needed for positive leadership, such as motivating employees, communicating effectively, and organizing multiple projects at once.

In any leadership role you will be working with people and communicating. A lot. At least half of my day, if not more, is communication. A lot of this communication is technical engineering work. Enabling teams. Brainstorming solutions. Architecting. Problem solving. Most of what I do is “engineering” even when I don’t work with code. Within this “engineering,” I prefer a very healthy mix of people time and in-the-zone coding time.

Pavel Veller
Pavel VellerCTO, Chief Technologist, EPAM Anywhere
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What benefits does the career path to CTO offer?

As you may know, a leadership position as a Chief Technology Officer is highly rewarding. Consider the following benefits as you plan your long-term career path to CTO:

  • Remuneration: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics offers a median pay for all top executives of $107,680 per year, while other reports show a base-pay average between $163,255 (Investopedia) and $255,299 (Salary.com) per year in the US. Compensation may also include stock options and other forms of equity share.
  • Job outlook: The career opportunities for CTOs is estimated to grow by 6% until 2028, supplying 150,600 jobs for qualified individuals, according to Zippia.
  • Reputation: The CTO role is prestigious, and carries with it a reputation for high-quality leadership.
  • Vision: As a company leader, you have the opportunity to direct an enterprise, which offers immense job satisfaction and access to new and exciting technologies.
  • Achievement: The CTO position has access to extensive resources and projects, meaning that you can positively impact many individuals, customers, and employees.

After more than 20 years in software engineering, this still rings true for me: the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. Learning new things and solving new problems remains fun and challenging. I don’t think it will ever get old.

Pavel Veller
Pavel VellerCTO, Chief Technologist, EPAM Anywhere

Steps you can take toward becoming a CTO

The challenges and benefits sound great, so how do you set up your career track to move toward the top technology position? Use the following steps to pursue the title of Chief Technology Officer:

  1. Advance your education: Think about completing a master’s and, potentially, PhD degree in a computer science-related field. If you do so, you will be well on your way to the CTO position.
  2. Invest in your technical skills: Search for and complete additional professional development that will help you take on a broader range of work responsibilities.
  3. Choose a career track in management: When the time is right, place additional emphasis on job opportunities that allow you to hone your leadership skills.
  4. Gain relevant work experience: Put in the time! Learning new skills as an architect or senior engineer will help you be a better CTO.
  5. Find a mentor: Identify coworkers or team leads with similar CTO aspirations and ask for guidance.
  6. Consider advanced business success metrics: A Chief Technology Officer has a high-level grasp of market conditions, trends, and business administration. Any additional skills you can learn in these areas could set you apart.

If you want to fast-track your promotion to the CTO role, join a small company as their most senior technologist and you will very likely be performing the work of a CTO even if you are not called a CTO.

Pavel Veller
Pavel VellerCTO, Chief Technologist, EPAM Anywhere

Are you ready to start your career path to CTO? EPAM Anywhere can help you find remote job opportunities in a variety of management positions. Build your career by matching with suitable IT work. Check out our open jobs.

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