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In the modern business landscape, you will struggle to find a large organisation that does not have its technology and IT operation overseen by a CIO or CTO, or perhaps IT director or VP technology/IT. But to what extent do these positions perform different roles depending on industry and organisation?

The only truthful answer to the question is that the differences between CIO and CTO are everything and nothing - as well as all things in between, but we look at some statistical and functional differences and trends that are common across CIO and CTO roles.


Despite the apparent similarities in both roles and skills sets, there exists a salary gap between CIOs and CTOs. According to Harvey Nash, CTOs now earn an average salary of $156,791 (£111,620) in the UK and $180,616 (£128,580) worldwide.

With a CIO earning a higher average salary of $169,296 (£120,520) in the UK and $187.001 (£133,120) globally.

While the CIO is busy influencing overall business strategy, the digital landscape has created new roles in the IT team and making space for a CTO to drive IT products.

That may be one result of the two roles co-existing, but what is the difference between a CIO and a CTO? In truth, in many organisations, there has been a blurred line between the roles and responsibilities of the CIO and the CTO.

Ultimately, a CEO needs to define both a CIO's and CTO's responsibilities in the business in order that both can understand and manage their roles effectively, and that the wider organisation can interact with them efficiently. (See also: Evolution of the CIO - From IT gatekeeper to strategic business leader.)

The functional difference between CIO and CTO

A true CIO's role should see them being a truly influential team member in the wider enterprise.

A traditional CIO's background was probably based in IT operations. But the demands on a modern CIO have seen more skills and responsibilities added to their role, creating a business-led function, that pertains to tech.

The CIO now manages the IT infrastructure involved in selling products and services, but they don't need to be technical themselves.

A modern CIO has become less IT focused but with operational efficiencies, stable IT and saving costs remaining major concerns on top of their duties as strategic leaders communicate technical issues in business language to the board, C-suite and whole organisation. They need to understand what tech can do, not always how it does it.

The CTO's role in some instances has become the external face of the IT platform, with their primary focus is delivering the latest tech to customers, both internal and external. They have to understand the technical requirements of the business, and what tools are available in market to support those needs.

The primary focus for a CIO is to make sure the company's digital strategy aligns with the business strategy, to generate and continue commercial success. The CTO has to help to make that vision happen, so they do need a deeper understanding of how tech works, and how each product will work with the other tools being used by the business.

How it works in the real world

CIO 100 member Bill Wilkins, CIO of First Utility, discussed with CIO UK last year, the difference between the CIO and CTO roles, and how the division can become unclear in the world of business.

He said: "A CIO delivers a scalable, reliable platform which runs and supports the business model. A CTO role is about product innovation delivering a digital product to customers."

As you can see there is some crossover here, and it is true that the two roles have become hybrid in some businesses. Ultimately the CEO and individual CIOs and CTOs are left to define their own roles with the responsibilities they hold. (See also: How to become a CIO: 17 essential IT career tips for getting a CIO job.)

BMJ’s Chief Technology Officer Rex Cooper told CIO UK in 2017: “I am responsible for ensuring all these products are available all the time, that they perform well and people can easily find what they need. As part of the product delivery process, I ensure that data, performance, simplicity and achievability are baked into every digital change we make.” 

While AECOM global CTO Steven Capper said in his 2017 CIO 100 response he “works closely with the global CIO where we have driven through over 40 real projects on time and to budget in the last 12 months.”

Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust CIO Rachel Dunscombe, a high-flyer in the 2017 edition of the CIO 100, says that the organisation's CTO is the true technical expert of the Trust with a crucial role scanning the tech horizon to assist the CIO role.

When deciding on how to apply the best technological approach, Dunscombe said that she looked to "partners, my CTO, and experts from suppliers to co-create a solution to a problem" as well as her own knowledge as CIO.

Dunscombe continued that the CTO is one of the most important people at the organisation in researching and learning about new technologies and vendors to help support the Trust.

And in order for a CTO and a CIO to drive change, they need to align the digital strategy with the business model to ensure success. 

What skills does each role require?

As discussed above, the skills required of a CIO have evolved, and a transformative CIO must be open to taking on new responsibilities on the go.

A modern CIO has had to become a business leader and strategic thinker in aligning themselves with the C-suite. The core skills have moved away from IT, to having a wider knowledge of tech, building relationships with line of business leaders, and working closely with the financial, HR and marketing departments of the organisation.

These skills and responsibilities have enabled the CIO to be creative and influential with the services they provide. And, of course, delivering value from the digital products implemented can add credibility to the organisation.

In some organisations, the hiring of a CTO is expected to have a greater opportunity in adding value to the business. The requirement for innovation and creativity is a skill CTOs need to retain in order to fulfil their role.

Previous CIO 100 member, and now CEO of NHS Digital Sarah Wilkinson said that during her time as Home Office Chief Digital, Data and Technology Officer, she developed their technical capability in-house through the use of data and machine learning.

Speaking as part of the 2016 CIO 100 she discusses how her leadership and influence skills have driven the success at the Home Office.

She said: "The track record of IT delivery at the Home Office has been poor in recent years. We are recovering from a lack of technical leadership so it was critical that I achieved a steady flow of reliable, stable deliveries in the first of the organisation."

The scale of technology demand has seen the business escalate since Wilkinson's arrival, with the CTO believing the 'confidence in their capability has grown' throughout the year.

She continued: "I find the best way to collaborate and influence with the senior management is to spend as much time as possible with the senior leaders and their teams. I listen to their priorities and concerns, and talk to them with as much clarity and specificity as possible about how IT can address their needs."

A CTO requires technical knowledge and leadership skills. They get IT projects up and off the ground, and bring new and relevant tools to the business.

While this will enable a CTO to deliver products to the users they must also be adaptive to their audience and focused on putting the customers' needs first.

CIO in crisis and re-emergence of the CTO?

The CIO role has gone through a number of changes in recent years, with CIOs often at the forefront of the innovation agenda and business transformation. Indeed, securing the organisation through educating the board about the opportunities provided by new technologies and business models.

But previous CIO 100 judge Trevor Didcock suggested it could be time for the re-emergence of the CTO, a view echoed by Target Chief Information and Digital Officer Mike McNamara - the former CIO at retail giant Tesco.

McNamara suggested that the CIO role may well collapse back into the CTO role from whence it evolved decades ago. CIOs have spent the last several years weaving IT throughout digital products and business processes, and educating senior managers on the role technology plays in the business, he explained. But as the digital transformations become complete, it begs the question: What becomes of the CIO?

"I think the CIO role transforms back into a CTO-type role," McNamara said. "You're focused on architecture, you're focused on engineering capability and it's less about being the translator because the native language is in the business."

Making way for CTOs

A CTO is responsible for delivering technology that promotes new forms of customer engagement. And according to Harvey Nash, 23% of CTO’s face challenges in creating new ways to communicate with users while using technology to meet their demands.

Trainline’s CTO Mark Holt believes technology is at the core of its business strategy with everything their customers see being influenced by the tools, culture and resources that they apply in the technology at use.

"Our biggest project last year was the acquisition and Integration of Captain Train in Paris," he told CIO in his 2017 CIO 100 response.

"This has enabled us to expand from being the UK’s number 1 independent rail retailer to Europe’s number 1 independent rail retailer. We now sell tickets for 50 operators, across 24 European countries, and are focused on bringing the exceptional UK customer experience to millions of customers in mainland Europe."

This mean Trainline could become more agile, moving the company from one production release every 6 weeks in 2014 to 185 a week in 2017.

While CIOs remain a prime candidate for delivering change, sometimes the CTO can get overlooked in the boardroom. Last year, CIO UK wrote about News UK’s CTO Christina Scott and her promotion to Deputy CTO at the News Corporation.

It will see Scott share her new position with News Corp’s CISO Latha Maripuri who will help the Deputy CTO oversee the Technology and Product teams at News UK.

Scott will take a global approach across the News Corporation’s portfolio while also continuing to build on the digital growth and innovation across the news titles The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times.

Last year, CIO Alan Crawford confirmed that City & Guilds were looking for a CTO who will be responsible for digital products in its e-learning business and reporting to their new ventures MD.

While the Department for Education, the Royal Opera House, Autodata and the Serious Fraud Office have all hired CTOs to help deliver new products and services to its customers in 2018.

Royal Opera House CTO Joe McFadden told us last year he was experimenting with AR and VR to help deliver cutting-edge artistic performances.

“We’ve been looking at this for around two and a half years now,” McFadden said.

“Our first experiment with VR was with 360 VR for The Nutcracker. That’s a piece of work which was very much trying to identify the language of virtual reality from a storytelling perspective. We set ourselves the challenge of trying to create a third person narrative.”

McFadden also said that the ROH team are developing new ways of innovation for theatre audiences.

“So we have Audience Labs, a relatively new addition to us. This brings together individuals who had already been thinking about and working on the use of technologies.

“We’re talking about conversational interfaces, Alexa (from Amazon), for example, as well as VR and AR.”