Career path: How to become a CTO

Opportunities are numerous in the technology arena. Firms within this sector are recruiting for roughly 86,000 openings, according to research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With the amount of jobs on the market, information technology professionals with the right education and technical knowledge can settle into truly stimulating roles that put them on the pathway to success. Where does this path lead? The executive suite is the ideal destination for most – specifically, the role of Chief Technology Officer.

These business leaders set the technological tone for the organization, leveraging their on-the-ground experience and leadership skills to develop, implement and manage mission-critical applications and systems, according to the BLS. While Chief Information Officers focus on long-term initiatives, CTOs concentrate on day-to-day operational activities, ensuring that the background solutions responsible for supporting essential business processes run smoothly. These high-profile responsibilities often come with equally hefty benefits, according to Payscale. The median mis salary for U.S.-based CTOs hovers just over the $150,000 threshold. Additionally, many can take advantage of robust bonuses, as well as commission and profit-sharing programs, further increasing their compensation.

Earning the title of CTO is, of course, no easy task. More than 80 percent of these executives come into the position with 10 or more years of experience, Payscale found. While the journey from industry entry and C-level ascendance unfolds differently depending on the professional, a number of common mileposts mark most routes.

Essential education

The vast majority of CTOs hold highly technical positions prior to moving into the corner office. Most have programming backgrounds and maintain advanced computational skills, allowing them to expertly navigate and evaluate enterprise software options and make informed decisions. While it is possible to acquire some of these competencies on the job, formalized educational programs work best, providing the technical and theoretical insight needed to intimately understand a wide variety of solutions. Consequently, CTOs invest heavily in their education, Information Age reported.

Many earn bachelor’s degrees in computer science and move into post-graduate business programs, where they can bolster their management skills. However, there are more streamlined instructional tracks. For instance, here at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, we offer a Master of Science degree in Management Information Systems through the Collat School of Business. This program helps aspiring CTOs build on their core programming skills, while also brushing up on cutting-edge business management techniques.

Students pursuing an MS MIS degree at the University of Alabama at Birmingham can take advantage of a variety of cutting-edge core courses. Information Technology and Business Strategy addresses how IT systems and non-technical business operations intersect, while IT Governance and Maintenance touches on industry-standard governance frameworks. Introduction to Business Intelligences covers the many ways in which companies are integrating analytics tools into mission-critical workflows in an effort to boost productivity – an important topic for IT professionals interested in moving up the ladder.

The program also includes a number of information security courses, including Attack and Penetration which gives students the ability to go inside the head of a hacker and explore network vulnerability. Incident Response and Business Continuity offers guidance on how to deal with company data loss, whether it be the result of a cyber attack or natural disaster. The MS MIS program offers two classes on the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification.

In addition to understanding these core concepts, CTO should also have in-depth knowledge of product development and deployment strategies, according to Payscale. Because these business leaders devote much of their time and energy to creating and rolling out new software, they should know how the process unfolds and have the tactical knowledge needed to work out kinks that could interrupt delivery and stunt organizational growth. Leadership competencies are also important. In fact, demonstrable directorial skills often lead to salary increases of 9 percent, Payscale found.

The MS MIS degree program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham offers training in these areas. Technology Planning and Capital Budgeting gives students the knowledge they need to oversee and evaluate large-scale enterprise deployments. Leadership in IT provides invaluable insight into how rising technology professionals might move out of the control room and into the corner office.

Optimal experience

Technically capable IT professionals tend to seek out roles that play to their strengths. The average CTO starts out in a programming or software development position before eventually moving up the ranks into a more high-profile job, according to the International Data Group. However, few achieve this feat via technical skills alone. Individuals yearning to reach the vaunted C-suite must look beyond the code and connect with other parts of the operation to better understand how development translates to profit.

How? Reaching out to contributors in other departments is the first step. This opens internal doors and catalyzes new learning opportunities unrelated to the nitty gritty of programming. In these situations, every experience adds value. Business development personnel can offer client insights and detail the sales process, while marketers explain branding and marketplace positioning. Together, these sessions round out the optimal CTO skill set, providing rising IT professionals with top-down knowledge required to oversee product development and deployment activities. Additionally, this move to expand often makes for stronger professional connections, which can come in handy down the road when high-level management or executive positions become available.

Throughout it all, aspiring CTOs should work to develop deep knowledge on burgeoning software architecture trends. While technical knowledge earned on campus certainly leads to success, continued management education facilitates longevity and provides the foundation for sound, forward-looking decision-making.

To CTO and beyond

The right mix of education and experience can vault IT professionals of all stripes into the executive suite. However, there is no standardized pathway to success. For example, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer, 41, netted his first executive role at the age of 27, ascending to CTO of the N1 Division at Sun Microsystems with only six years of work experience, according to research from one London-based technology consulting group. Conversely, Microsoft CTO Angus Foreman, 47, worked for three decades before moving into his current position in 2012. The difference in the career trajectories of these two IT leaders illustrates how professionals in the industry can climb the ladders in drastically different ways.

Often times, of course, the position of CTO is simply another launching pad for future opportunities. These executive leaders sometimes advance further to become chief operations officers and CEOs, according to Payscale. Others parlay their corporate experience into lucrative consulting roles that offer more flexibility and even larger paychecks.

Though the journey may seem daunting, moving into the C-suite and assuming the role of CTO is an entirely reachable goal with the proper skills and work experience. That said, it all starts in the classroom where industry experts and software architects give aspiring IT leaders the knowledge they need to navigate the technology sector and ascend to new heights. Here at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, we offer an online Master of Science in Management Information Systems program. The instructional track, offered through the Collat School of Business, equips students with the technical and business skills required to excel within the technology industry.

Students pursuing Master of Science degrees in Management Information Systems take six core courses covering key topics such as Information Technology and Business Strategy, Information Security Management and Leadership in IT. Technical experts from a variety of fields, including finance and health care, provide cutting-edge instruction and hard-earned insights into how technology skills and leadership competencies are deployed in everyday operations. Graduates earn their degrees in 1.5 years, all without stepping one foot on campus.

The UAB MS MIS program ranks among the “Best Online Graduate Business Programs,” according to U.S News and World Report. It has also received accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).

Are you interested in gaining the technical and leadership skills necessary to climb the technology career ladder? Connect with one of our enrollment advisors to discuss the MS MIS degree track and chart out your pathway to the C-suite.



U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, What Computer and Information Systems Managers Do

Payscale, Average Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Salary

Information Age, The path to becoming a chief technology officer 

CodingDojo, Top Programming Languages Of 2021

Info World, Rising from the coding ranks to become a CTO

The Path to Tech CTO