CTO vs. CIO: What’s the difference?

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Careers in technology are numerous in today’s connected world. There’s no shortage of need for information systems and information technology experts, which means earning a Master of Science in Management Information Systems can be a smart, career-boosting move.

Two popular career paths students might pursue after completing their MIS degree are chief information officer and chief technology officer. Though these titles might sound similar, they have some major differences. Which is right for you?

A man using a standing desk types on his laptop.

What is a CIO?

Of the two titles, the CIO is more senior, becoming widely adopted into companies’ C-suites about three decades ago, according to Oracle’s ProfIT magazine. The CIO is called on to manage an organization’s IT infrastructure. It’s up to this professional to identify areas to save money, bolster efficiency, and solve business problems using technology.

For CIOs to be successful, it’s important that they understand the capabilities of various technologies. Unlike the role of a CTO, CIOs aren’t necessarily required to know the small details about how technology works or how to create it. It’s more important that they understand what various technologies are capable of and how they can serve the organization, the Telegraph explained.

People skills are critical for CIOs. Because these professionals are tasked with leading teams, technologies, and processes in the company, they need to be capable at management and communication. As such, students aspiring to become a CIO can find value in courses such as:

IS 612: IT Governance & Management

Ensuring all IT-related processes comply with the relevant standards and laws is one duty of the CIO. It’s important to understand the process of creating governance frameworks and applying them to specific organizations. This course covers these concepts and reviews potential managerial issues the CIO must address.

IS 618: IT Project Management

Knowing how to manage people, processes, and projects is critical for a successful CIO. This course will focus on building management skills, with a heavy emphasis on the Project Management Institute’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. Students will be well-equipped to take the PMI Project Management Professional certification exam at the end of this course.

What is a CTO?

While a CIO focuses on the internal processes of an organization, the CTO is more outward-looking. A CTO’s goals may be to develop technology to improve the business or make it more competitive, or to benefit an organization’s clients or partners.

CTOs often come from development backgrounds, with the skills to be very hands-on with tech development, according to CIO. It’s essential that CTOs understand the technology needs of a business and are able to apply their knowledge to meet those needs. Being a creative and knowledgeable technologist can greatly benefit a professional in this position.

Like many other C-level executives, both the CIO and CTO strive to enhance a company’s profitability. But while the CIO does this through intelligently managing costs, the CTO’s goal is more focused on making more money as a business through competitive strategies and offerings.

Students who hope to become a CTO can benefit from courses such as:

IS 611: Information Technology & Business Strategy

CTOs are often expected to use their technology skills to make a company more competitive or provide value to partners and customers. This course dives into the relationship between IT and business strategy, encouraging students to think about how innovation and strategy can benefit a business.

IS 641: Leadership in IT

Because CTOs may be tasked with finding new technologies and implementing them within the organization, it’s important that they understand how to make a case for the technology to other C-level executives. They also need to be able to oversee the adoption and ensure everyone who will be using it understands the new technology. This course teaches students leadership and communication skills that are essential to completing these tasks effectively.

Which is higher: CIO or CTO?

There’s no clear answer to the question of which C-level position outranks the other. In some companies, the CIO is above the CTO. In others, the hierarchy is reversed or officers are on even ground. Certain companies may only have one or the other, too.

But when a company has both a CIO and a CTO, these professionals can be highly collaborative. The CIO might envision a certain problem being solved by technology, and the CTO devises a solution and implements it. Or, the CIO introduces new technologies to the company, while the CTO focuses on innovating current or incoming technologies.

“If you think about it, the CTO will frequently see the beauty of a new technology and push for its use but may be less adept at getting the business case right,” Andy Mulholland, global CTO for Capgemini, explained to ProfIT. “The CIO balances that.”

UAB’s online MS MIS program prepares future CIOs and CTOs

If one of your career goals is to lead a technology team for an organization, it’s important to learn and sharpen the skills necessary to be successful in a leadership role. Students who pursue their MS MIS degree online through the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Collat School of Business will be introduced to relevant concepts like understanding the relationship between business strategy and IT, and how to effectively manage a team of IT or development professionals. To learn more about the online MS MIS program, reach out to an enrollment advisor today.

Recommended Readings:

Career opportunities to consider with an MS MIS

Area of interest: IT management vs. cyber security management


Oracle ProfIT

The Telegraph

University of Alabama at Birmingham Collat School of Business MS MIS Course Descriptions