CIO vs. CTO: 10 Differences Between These Roles

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CIO vs. CTO: 10 Differences Between These Roles

Digital transformation is essential for any company that wants to be prepared for the exponential era. For companies to stay innovative and lead their markets, they require leadership with sufficient tech and IT expertise to navigate them through the digital revolution.

The chief information officer (CIO) and chief technology officer (CTO) roles are two such leadership positions, which play an increasingly prominent role in today’s business landscape.

In this article, we’ll deep-dive into these two positions, outlining 10 key differences between CIO and CTO, and exploring how both roles can positively impact an organization. Let’s jump in!

CIO vs. CTO: A Side-by-Side Comparison

What is it?Chief Information Officer: an executive who is focused on IT and how it can be used to advance the commercial objectives of a business. Chief Technology Officer: an executive who is focused on science and technology and how it can be used to advance the commercial objectives of a business. 
QualificationsMBA, IT, data architecture, or computing qualificationsMBA, STEM qualifications
Reports toCFO
Creation & Development of the RoleWilliam R. Synnott, William H. GruberEvolved out of R&D executive roles post-WWII
Key Job DutiesDeveloping policy and strategy relating to IT for a company
Implementing IT strategy and introducing new technology to company operations
Oversight of internal IT-related operations
Developing policy and strategy relating to the use of science and technology by enterprises
Focus on using science and technology to serve customers better and strengthen market position
Professional BodiesThe CIO Executive Council
CIO 100
CIO 50 
Federal CIO Council
Local CIO Council – Socitm
CIO Council – NRF
London CIO Council
CEB CIO Leadership Council
Global CTO
International LA CTO Forum

What is a CIO?

A CIO is a chief information officer (CIO), an executive who has board-level oversight of the information technology and computing aspects of running an enterprise and ensuring it meets its commercial goals. This role may also be called:

  • Chief Digital Information Officer (CDIO) 
  • Information Technology (IT) Director

CIOs usually report to the chief executive officer (CEO), but in some organizations, a CIO is subordinate to the chief financial officer (CFO) or chief operating officer (COO). CIOs can also sit on a board of directors. According to Payscale, the average salary for a Chief Information Officer in the U.S. is $171,696, but this varies significantly according to the sector in which they operate, and is not inclusive of bonuses and other benefits.

The History and Importance of the CIO 

This role has existed for over 40 years. It was developed by MIT professor, William R. Synnott, in partnership with a former VP of the Bank of Boston.

This executive is uniquely positioned and equipped to serve businesses that increasingly rely on technological innovation and data management. CIOs are valuable because there is a recognized shortage of senior IT professionals with the interpersonal, communications, and leadership skills and experience to take on this role. A lack of IT expertise at the board level can threaten the essential digital transformation of companies, so this role is extremely valued.

A CIO manages the interplay between the commercial objectives of the company, customer needs, and the IT infrastructure of the company. CIOs must confidently straddle all these areas and have the technical knowledge to plan and implement all aspects of the organization’s information and communication technology (ICT), including the outsourcing of IT support.

CIO may also have close involvement with the financial operations of an enterprise. They can advise the board on how information technology can be applied to cut costs or boost profits and provide insight that can help leadership understand the cost implications of investing in new technology. CIOs are also increasingly expected to provide input on the customer journey or experience due to the increase in customer interactions and transactions that are moving online.

What Does the CIO Role Involve?

The chief information officer role covers the following areas:

  • Business leadership: As an executive, the CIO needs to exercise strong leadership skills so that they can effectively direct business operations relating to ICT. 
  • Development and implementation of ICT strategy: The leadership of a company is reliant on the insight and expertise of a CIO in developing a company-wide ICT strategy that keeps the enterprise agile, future-forward and secure. A CIO’s IT strategy may cover key areas that include:
    • Business intelligence
    • Cloud and edge computing
    • Collaboration technologies
    • Virtualization
    • Network security
    • Merchant payment services
    • Mobile technologies
    • Enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems
  • Executive decision-making: The CIO evaluates all relevant information to make the decisions relating to IT that place the company at a competitive advantage at all times. 
  • Directing business operations relevant to IT: Strategy and policy development at the CIO level should filter down through accountable management layers to impact the daily IT operations of the company so that commercial objectives are fulfilled. 
  • Oversight of recruitment matters relevant to IT: CIOs provide input on talent acquisition relevant to IT, including the procurement of outsourced services and expertise where necessary.
  • Input on mergers and acquisitions: The CIO will provide advice on the IT implications of any company mergers or acquisitions. 
  • Input on equipment purchases and the development of new IT systems: Using the company’s IT strategy as a guide, the CIO will direct the procurement of necessary hardware, software, and connectivity solutions that the company needs.
  • Navigating compliance issues: CIOs will be relied on to ensure that the company complies with relevant IT standards and legislation. The need to demonstrate compliance gives them a significant amount of control over what is and is not allowed within the organization they work for. CIOs provide technical knowledge of legislation like GDPR or international standards like ISO 9001.

The CIO and Business Transformation

Business processes rely on IT, meaning the CIO has a role that can deliver in-depth re-engineering of how a business operates. It is their responsibility to identify research and evaluate new tools, hardware, and technology, and ensure that the IT infrastructure and networking can cope with the long-term growth trajectory of the company. Any business seeking to implement an important IT project needs to have CIO on board to competently direct this process from within rather than relying on external consultants. 

CIOs also require a holistic approach that looks at the organization as a whole, rather than being doggedly focused on IT. This breadth of function extends to service management and the integration of third-party tools and software like SaaS. Every aspect of this role is focused on navigating the business successfully through a changing technological landscape. 

CIO Organizations

The CIO role is increasingly recognized in industry by the formation of professional bodies and councils where CIOs can share their expertise and outlook. Membership in these councils can help CIOs improve, shape, and innovate IT practices in both the public and private sectors. Examples of these organizations include:

chief information officer chief technology officer CIO CTO professional woman businesswoman
CIOs and CTOs definitely share similarities, but they have some key differences.

©Dragon Images/Shutterstock.com

What is a CTO?

A chief technology officer, or CTO, is a board-level executive who is primarily focused on scientific and technological issues (not limited to IT) within an enterprise to ensure that technological advances are sufficiently utilized and the company retains or gains a competitive advantage. CTOs may also be called:

  • Chief Technical Officers 
  • Chief Technologists

This dynamic role involves the CTO remaining aware of emerging and existing scientific and technological advances that will be of benefit to the company and presenting them to the board so that they can be evaluated and acted on promptly. CTOs work closely with CIOs and the IT department but are not as enmeshed in the daily IT operations of the business. In many organizations, the CTO is subordinate to the CIO, reflecting the close working relationship between these two executives. 

According to Payscale, the average salary for a chief technology officer in the U.S. is $170,518, but this varies significantly according to the sector in which they operate, and is not inclusive of bonuses and other benefits. CTOs are usually post-grads with significant industry experience in science and tech-related fields and strong technology-related management skills.

The Development of the CTO Role

The CTO role was developed in the late 1940s. Following the World War, corporations invested in scientists to work in research and development (R&D) facilities with a focus on developing new products and technologies. These R&D facilities were led by a corporate VP who would be wholly focused on R&D and talent recruitment for the acceleration of innovation and commercial objectives. 

The CTO role largely developed out of these R&D leadership roles which included:

  • R&D Manager
  • Vice President of Engineering
  • Director of R&D 

By the 1980s, the rapid advancements in science and technology necessitated the integration of these science-focused executives into the board and the expansion of their remit to cover the business operations. By the late 1980s, CTOs were prominent members of the executive board.

Companies rely on the CTO for all aspects of the development of products and services. CTOs deliver insight into the technical side of products and have essential problem-solving skills that help companies improve their commercial offerings. CTOs help to mature nascent industries like:

  • IT and computing
  • Gaming
  • Telecommunications
  • E-commerce
  • Social media
  • Biotechnology
  • Automotive

These executives need to have a long-term outlook, yet be agile enough to pivot to exploit opportunities. Blue-sky thinking is certainly a part of the role, but inquisitiveness, disciplined research, and a systematic approach to tasks and problems go a long way. 

What Does the CTO Role Involve?

The CTO role is diverse and may have significant overlap with the CIO position. Here are some typical job duties of a CTO within a large organization:

  • Developing the company’s technology architecture
  • Researching and implementing technologies that give the company a competitive advantage
  • Creating innovative processes for operations like manufacturing, sales, and internal communications
  • Using technology to develop new products and services that can be offered to consumers
  • Applying technology to improve the client or customer experience
  • Oversight of the company’s data flows and data management so it can be used to advantage the company commercially
  • Development of strategies and policies relating to the use of technology in the company
  • Maintenance of knowledge of industry-relevant legislation and regulation including: patent and intellectual property law, governmental regulation (e.g. FDA, OSHA, and EPA regulations), international compliance (e.g. GDPR)
  • Obtaining legal counsel where necessary in the process of developing proposals, policies, and strategies for the company
  • Contributing to inter-company negotiations
  • Liaising with IT, finance, sales, and marketing departments to ensure that the technology has the maximum impact

CTOs can shape a company and many have risen to prominence because of the impact they have had. Examples of successful CTOs include:

CTO Organizations

The interests, expertise, and professional development of CTOs are represented by several global professional bodies. These organizations facilitate knowledge translation and exchange and help CTOs shape the companies they work for with new and emerging technologies. Such organizations include:

What’s the Difference Between CIO and CTO?

In many organizations, there is a significant overlap between the role of a CIO and a CTO. The role may also have a significant overlap with emerging executive positions like Chief Data Officer (CDO), Chief Security Officer (CSO), or Chief Information Security Officer (CISO).

Here are the 10 need-to-know differences that make CIOs and CTOs distinct: 

  1. CTOs are focused on the full scope of science and technology and how it relates to a business and not just IT.
  2. A CIO is wholly focused on IT strategy, policy, and implementation within an organization. 
  3. CIOs often focus on internal processes and how IT can be used to improve company efficiency.
  4. CTOs are more outward facing, exploring how tech can be used to acquire and serve customers and grow market share. 
  5. CTOs may report to CIOs.
  6. CIOs often report to the CEO or CFO.
  7. CIOs are much more involved in the day-to-day business operations within an organization, while CTOs are less technically integrated into company operations. 
  8. CTOs are more externally oriented and concerned with markets and customers.
  9. CIOs look for solutions to internal constraints.
  10. CTOs apply innovative approaches to dealing with external constraints.

Similarities and Differences


  • The CIO and CTO are both board-level executives.
  • Remuneration is comparable for both roles.
  • CIOs and CTOs develop company strategies and policies concerning their specific fields of expertise.
  • Both types of executives are typically post-graduates with MBAs or equivalent qualifications. 
  • CIOs and CTOs are concerned with ensuring their organization obtains or maintains a competitive advantage in their sector.
  • Both roles are concerned with the use of technology in a company’s business operations and product or service development. 
  • CIO and CTO may both work on IT-related projects within a company.
  • CIOs and CTOs may work closely together.
  • CIOs and CTO can shape a company’s direction by implementing specific types of technology.
  • The CIO and CTO roles are essential to the digital transformation of businesses.
  • Both professionals have deep technical knowledge of their fields.
  • Both types of executives work collaboratively as part of the company’s leadership.
  • CIOs and CTOs report to the CEO in every organization.


  • CTOs are concerned with science and technology and how they can be harnessed for business efficiency and growth, while CIOs are focused on the use of IT in business operations. 
  • CIOs have a lot of involvement in the day-to-day business operations of a company, while CTOs have a much wider and external scope. 
  • CIOs are usually subordinate to the CEO, CFO, and COO, while CTOs tend to report to the CIO.
  • The CTO role developed out of older R&D executive positions.
  • The CIO role was developed specifically to address IT infrastructure within companies in the 1980s.
  • CIOs usually have a STEM academic background, but CIOs do not necessarily need to have graduate qualifications in computing. 

How to Become a CIO or CTO

CTOs and CIOs hold senior executive positions within a company. Graduates who have a passion for science, technology, computing, and business leadership may aspire to these roles. Here is a quick summary of the key career steps for becoming a CIO or CTO:

How to Become CIO

Here are the key steps for becoming a CIO:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree: CIOs don’t necessarily have to be IT experts, but a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, IT, or Software Development may prove to be advantageous in your career.
  2. Obtain an MBA: An MBA is a common qualification for CIOs. It is valuable to organizations because it equips professionals with key business skills and a structured approach to solving business problems. CIOs may also build exceptional expertise in IT by completing a Master’s in Data Management, Computing, or other IT-related subjects. 
  3. Build a CV with strong IT and business experience: CIOs ideally should have a CV that demonstrates that they have extensive experience in business leadership, business operations, and IT. This experience can be gained in a single role or suite of relevant roles with clear career progression. 
  4. Share your thoughts and ideas and solve problems: To be recognized as a potential CTO, shape your career by getting involved in any talent management or mentoring programs at work. Develop a strong CV, with clear accomplishments that will make you a strong candidate for this kind of role.

How to Become CTO

These are the key steps for becoming a CTO: 

  • Earn a bachelor’s degree: For a CTO role, you should consider studying Science Technology Engineering, or Mathematics (STEM) related subjects at the degree level. 
  • Extend your studies with relevant post-graduate education and training: Many CTOs obtain a Master’s or Ph.D. in a field relevant to the industry they want to work in. This keeps them ahead of developments in science and technology as they have a strong research background and can evaluate developments correctly. Alternatively, an MBA is a well-respective business qualification. 
  • Join a company in the industry you want to work in: Many companies offer graduate programs or specialized talent recruitment campaigns to look for people with the qualifications and potential to become a CTO within their organization. Stay with organizations for an extended duration (a decade or more) so that you can be promoted and make a meaningful difference in your role.
  • Get involved in succession planning, mentoring, or career development programs within your organization: As a potential CIO, you need to show that you are an innovative thinker and will consistently deliver for the organizations you are part of. Be an active contributor to company innovation about IT and perhaps develop a blog or social media profile where you walk people through key IT solutions and their implementation.

CTO vs. CIO: 6 Must-Know Facts

  • Only 40 percent of CIOs surveyed by the Deloitte CIO Program lead digital strategy in their organization. 
  • According to Indeed, the typical tenure for a CIO is two to four years.
  • Payscale reports that the number of years in position massively increases CIO salary, with entry-level CIOs earning upwards of $100,760, mid-career execs earning  $129,987 or more, and veteran CIOs raking in over $176,836.
  • In the U.S., there are over 23,000 CTOs.
  • 91.6% of CTOs are men.
  • According to IBM, over 29% of CTOs expect their next role to be CEO.

Final Thoughts

The CIO and CTO roles are very similar and probably heavily shaped by the organization they are part of. Modern organizations that are focused on growth need to have at least one of these executive roles to fully take advantage of digitalization and acceleration of company growth online. Challenges like cyberattacks also make it essential to at least have a CIO to provide oversight that IT infrastructure is robust, secure, and future-focused. 

It’s also important to remember that many CTOs and CIOs are company founders, especially if the business is tech or software-related. Founders may not have the business acumen to take a company to the next level but may remain in leadership positions specifically related to their expertise in IT, science, and technology. So, if you want to become a CTO or CIO, that may be the fastest route to a C-suite position!

CIO vs. CTO: 10 Differences Between These Roles FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What is a COO?

The Chief Operations Officer (COO) is a senior executive that is second only to the CEO in many aspects of business leadership. They have a massive scope and oversight of the day-to-day administrative and operational aspects of running a company and ensuring it meets its commercial objectives. The COO is at the heart of executing the strategies that are devised by other C-level executives and ensuring that they are successfully integrated into company operations. 

What is a CSO?

A Chief Security Officer, or CSO, is a senior executive with the remit of ensuring that company assets, data, finances, reputation, and personnel are properly secured. A big part of this role is risk reduction and ensuring that company operations comply with leading security standards and regulations.

What is a CDO?

The Chief Data Officer (CDO) is a senior executive with a specific remit of overseeing the management and use of data within a company. CDOs develop company strategies and policies that ensure compliance with data protection laws and ensure that data is properly harnessed for company growth.

What is a CINO?

A Chief Innovation Officer, or CINO, is an executive who is concerned with developing, implementing, and managing innovation and change management within an organization. They usually have a high level of authority, reporting only to the CEO as they drive change.

What is digital transformation?

Digital transformation integrates digital technology throughout all of the processes and operations of a company, a revolutionary step for many organizations. It can be divided into four key areas of change:

  • Cloud and edge computing 
  • Data management
  • Customer or user experience (UX)
  • Mobility

Businesses need to adapt to novel digital methods of delivering products and services, communicating, marketing themselves, and serving customers profitably. For many companies, the journey to digitalization is highly experimental and many ventures and initiatives can fail. However, if successful, digital transformation is known to accelerate commercial growth.

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