Difference Between CIO and CTO: Top C-suite Roles for MIS Graduates

In college, sometimes your top goal is to graduate and get a job soon after. However, once you enter the workforce, you may discover certain paths you need to choose between that will determine your future. Having an end goal in mind can help you avoid any missed opportunities along the way.

When it comes to your Master of Science in Management Information Systems (MS MIS), you can reach for C-suite executive positions that chart the course of your department and establish policies. If this sounds like what you’d like to do, here are the primary differences between the chief information officer (CIO) and chief technology officer (CTO) positions and what you can expect when you do land your dream job.

The CIO Role

The chief information officer is an executive who strategizes technology initiatives for the company. Since the emergence of cloud computing, hybrid workspaces and big data analytics, a CIO is responsible for managing these new expectations and developing a plan for staying on top of emerging technology. However, the day-to-day management of a computer system falls to the chief operations officer (COO) of IT.

CIOs play a primary role in selecting new systems and technologies that will help their business run efficiently, such as:

  • Containers: Lightweight software packaging is used to run anything from a large application to a small microservice.
  • Artificial intelligence (AI): Tools that use machine learning, automation, data collection, etc.
  • Serverless cloud computing: This addresses the workload associated with maintaining hardware and software provisions.
  • Machine learning workflows: These enable hybrid workplaces to automate parts of their workflows with AI support.
  • Work collaboration: An online work collaboration platform to enable transparent workflows across any work location.
  • Proactive cybersecurity: Setting systems that protect an organization’s data by replicating important information in several secure places in the case of an attack.

Not only is the CIO a lead developer and IT architect, but they’re also considered the face of the department. This means they are constantly searching for new ways to improve that align with current trends and needs, like how to better protect their company’s data, their competitive advantage, and companywide productivity — especially with AI.

AI is a growing aspect of technology that is becoming harder and harder to ignore. For developers and information technology professionals, AI has helped simplify their roles as well as present new challenges and possibilities.

When it comes to AI, a CIO is responsible for uncovering new opportunities for utilizing this technology to further their business. The use of AI has helped develop account-based marketing, inbound sales, and even the advancement of self-driving cars. These incredible steps in technology would not be possible without the help and leadership of a CIO focused on the next generation of tech.

Here’s what Brad Strock, CIO of PayPal, had to say about being a CIO: “Technology has been transforming companies for decades, but where in the past it may have been a change to a department or a division, it is now important enough to change their entire business model. It was a subset of industries, but now it is most industries.”

The opportunities are truly endless as the need for more robust technology systems grows. The role of the CIO has grown tremendously since 2020 — which some say was “the year digital transformation really took off,” according to ServiceNow’s chief innovation officer, Dave Wright, in a 2020 article for Forbes.

Your information technology degree can help you utilize the place technology is right now and capitalize on extracting data for business initiatives and the future of artificial intelligence.

What You’ll Need to Get to the CIO Role

While your path toward a CIO position may look different than someone else’s, here are 10 skills and expectations that you can work on while traveling down your career path:

  1. Achieve a masters’ degree in information technology, business, computer science, or a related field.
  2. Maintain at least five years in a leadership role pertaining to information technology.
  3. Manage large-scale budgets and funding models.
  4. Conduct performance reviews of current technology and team members.
  5. Provide vision and leadership across departments.
  6. Recommend strategies, priorities, and objectives to reach business goals and company missions.
  7. Implement the best technology solutions available and within budget.
  8. Help maintain data security.
  9. Identify critical technology and security issues.
  10. Put systems in place to proactively protect an organization’s data.

While this isn’t an exhaustive list and the actual job requirements will vary depending on where you apply when you’re ready, this should give you a good idea of the skills to develop along the way. Landing your C-suite position should require a 10-year plan, meaning you have time to develop and shape your experience. Keep in mind that as the tech world evolves, so will your position. As a future CIO, keeping up with the current technology trends should be a top priority.

Income of a CIO

According to PayScale, the average chief information officer of a company will earn around $166,771 per year. The high and low end of this position will largely depend on where in the U.S. you live like California or Maryland.

ZipRecruiter noted that qualified professionals can earn more by advancing past a CIO position and providing higher value to the company by taking on additional responsibilities.

Female business leader standing in front of her fellow employees.

You can add more responsibilities and demonstrate higher decision-making skills to advance even further in your career. The higher you climb, the more potential you’ll have to advance to a CEO position as you demonstrate related capabilities.

The CTO Role

A chief technology officer holds an executive role focused on the growth of the business by developing technology customers want to buy. They manage the development and delivery of the company’s technology products and services in a manner aligned with the company’s goals and standards.

In the case an organization does not sell technology as a service, a CTO is the person behind developing the company’s own websites, applications, and digital customer engagement tools. In short, they hold a deep understanding of the technical needs of the business.

As we’ve seen from many innovative tech giants like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, technology does not stand still. Instead, as Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, said, “While it’s good to learn from the old, you should always be striving to create the new. Don’t let yourself be held back by what has come before you, and forge a new path.”

Forging a path as a CTO involves understanding what is best for the company. This position can easily collaborate across departments with the chief marketing officer (CMO) or chief operating officer (COO) to develop strategies that will benefit the company. As new trends and needs arise, the CTO should be on top of how to best implement systems that will work.

Additionally, according to a blog by Oracle, CTOs have more job flexibility when migrating from one company to another. The CTO is less concerned about back-end technology but more focused on how technology can improve the customer experience. Whereas a CIO is exploring productivity for internal teams, CTOs are researching what will make a business grow using its website or through its service offerings. This gives chief technology executives more room to move from company to company because their skills are not deeply specific to the company itself.

What You’ll Need to Get There

As Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, said during his 2015 commencement speech at George Washington University, “Work takes on new meaning when you feel you are pointed in the right direction. Otherwise, it’s just a job, and life is too short for that.”

For that reason, it’s vital to understand where you’re headed in your career and what skills you need to develop to reach your goals as a CTO. Here is a list of requirements to prepare for the job as a CTO:

  • Earn a master’s degree in data, technology or engineering.
  • Develop experience in programming languages.
  • Lead in technology strategy based on industry knowledge.
  • Collaborate with other teams, executive boards, and the CEO.
  • Have significant experience in establishing software architecture, departmental goals, and key performance indicators (KPIs).
  • Measure the return on investment (ROI) on digital projects while fine-tuning strategies.
  • Implement software as a service (SaaS) programming and systems.
  • Identify new technology programs necessary for your industry, like single look complex products or enterprise research planning.
  • Instill digital engineering best practices.
  • Acquire managerial experience in a technological leadership

These are not identical in every company you apply to but provides a great outline for knowing which skills to focus on along your career path. The goal of a CTO is to help their organization excel by engaging in technology the right way. This involves keeping a finger on the pulse of industry trends, emerging technologies, and what is best for business. Then, look at how a CTO can use this knowledge to set their company apart in a unique way.

Income of a CTO

On average, a chief technology officer in the U.S. will earn around $152,000 per year, with the range landing between $99,000 and $233,000, according to Zippia. These numbers are largely determined by location, education, certifications, and the number of years you’ve been in the industry.

Zippia also specifies that you can earn more depending on the industry you work in. The top four highest-paying industries for a CTO are:

  • Telecommunication
  • Technology
  • Manufacturing
  • Finance

The Primary Differences and Similarities Between CIO and CTO

How you approach business processes and technology strategy will largely determine which role you would be best suited to. Both roles will help improve the efficiency of the business, but your goals must outline which part of the business is your passion.

To further break it down, here are the similarities and differences between the two roles.

Similarities Between CIO and CTO

Many who do not work in the tech industry or don’t have a long-term plan for their technology degree often get CIOs and CTOs confused. The primary reason for this is simply because they both manage business technology.

Here are a few similarities:

  • Both leaders need to have strong creative and strategic mindsets toward improving the company.
  • Both are essential for the development of a company on both the technical and business sides.
  • Both career paths ensure their respective companies run the best available technology.
  • Both work collaboratively across departments like with the CEO and other C-suite executives to ensure their business is running smoothly.
  • Both oversee departmental operations and managing teams.

New technologies allow both the CIO and CTO to make important decisions for their business and help to drive the direction of their goals.

However, neither role is superior to the other. Their executive titles and positions in the company make them both high-powered jobs to pursue.

Differences Between CIO and CTO

The CIO looks to make internal technology improvements, whereas the CTO is external-facing and works toward using technology to make the company more attractive to customers.

For example, a CIO would approach AI in how it relates to improving the lives of their developers, whereas a CTO would use AI to better collect data for their marketing and sales teams.

A CIO typically will not transition into the CTO role and vice versa because of these basic differences. The CIO is so focused on the internal that shifting toward making business decisions based on sales is a huge leap — and the same is true for the reverse.

Businesses need someone to look out for their internal systems just as much as they need an innovator to improve their offerings. Both CIO and CTO roles are valuable in the business world, and you can make a difference in whatever role is right for you.

Excel Toward Your Dream with an Online MS in MIS

As a student just getting started, this may seem far off, but before you know it, you’ll be making decisions that will determine your career path. In all, both positions require a commitment to technology-based jobs and a clear understanding of what it means to lead in business.

What You Gain with a Master of Science in Management Information Systems from the UAB Collat School of Business

This program will prepare you for both the technical and business sides of these two roles. At UAB, you’ll learn the skills necessary for success, such as project management, social media, IT governance, business intelligence, and data security.

The skills and knowledge you gain during your studies carry over long after you graduate. These skills will build on each other and, as you navigate the working world, you’ll be glad you took the time to gain graduate-level knowledge as your base.

This degree is for you if you are an IT professional aspiring to become an expert in your field. Even if you earned your bachelor’s degree in another discipline, you can join our bridge program without needing another four-year degree.

With the flexibility of an online program, you can earn your degree anywhere in the country while holding your current IT job and continuing to build your resume.

Degrees in technology like the online Master of Science in Management Information Systems from the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Collat School of Business are available for you to prepare for these high-level positions. Take the path that feels right for you and, as always, you can count on our enrollment advisors if you ever have any questions.


Recommended readings:

General overview: online Master of Science in Management Information Systems

How a Master of Science in Management Information Systems can impress employers

4 Reasons to Get a Degree in Management Information Systems Instead of Computer Science

Information Systems vs. Information Technology: Which Degree Is the Right Path for Me?



CIO.com, “CIO interview with Brad Strock, CIO of PayPal”

Forbes, “A CIO’s “First 100 Day Plan” For 2021”

Payscale, “Average Chief Information Officer (CIO) Salary”

Ziprecruiter, “Global CIO Salary”

Interesting Engineering, “17+ Inspiring Quotes From the Most Successful Tech CEOs”

Oracle, “CIO or CTO—What’s in a Title?”

Times, “Tim Cook to Grads: This Is Your World to Change”

Zippia, “Average Chief Technology Officer Salary”