What is the difference between a CIO and a CTO?


In the modern business landscape, there aren't many large organisations that do not boast a CIO, CTO or IT director overseeing technological operations. The roles involve some overlap, and many businesses may settle on one position rather than a combination - and while the titles are sometimes interchangable there are some trends suggesting differences in the role and responsibilities of CIOs and CTOs.

Here, we discuss the similarities and differences between CIOs and CTOs, how this plays out in real life organisations, and how both roles are set to continue evolving into the future.

CIOs look inwards, CTOs outwards?

Traditionally, professionals filling both positions were likely to come from a highly technical background, with the average CTO still generally starting out life as a developer. However, the CIO role has evolved and seen more skills and responsibilities added to it, creating a business-led - rather than solely technical - role.

CIOs today still manage the IT infrastructure in the organisation, but there is less requirement for them to be highly technical themselves - instead moving emphasis to an understanding of what IT can do rather than how it does it.

Some CIOs might be less concerned with developing new technology for example, than with managing operational efficiencies and cutting costs, especially if the organisation has a corresponding CTO role. This is complemented by the CIO's responsibilities as strategic leaders who act as a bridge between technical departments and the board, C-suite and wider organisation.

Therefore, the CIO role can encompass many more managerial responsibilities and the requirement to oversee people relationships than that of the CTO. Because the CIO is more business focused, they usually manage a larger body of staff than CTOs, and work more closely with the CEO and other C-level executives.

While the CIO is primarily tasked with managing internal relationships and the working of organisational IT infrastructure, the CTO can be more outwardly focused, tasked with developing the technology that helps the business grow externally.

This delineation is endorsed by Tibco COO, Matt Quinn. "For me, I look at Nelson Petracek, my CTO, as my explorer," he says. "He's got his machete, and he's going through the jungle, making paths that didn't exist before, and he's got a team of people that are really designed to do that."

This is a little different to the CIO role. "I have Sharon Mandell as CIO, who's really responsible for making sure that the operational aspects of our business that are supported by IT are clean and efficient," says Quinn.

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This means that the CTO has been a role that is generally more closely aligned with IT teams than the C-Suite, and their concerns are usually focused on developing technology to deliver to the company's clients and to help differentiate the business from competitors. This means they must understand the technical requirements of the business, and what tools are available in market to support those needs.

In a nutshell, 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 on the other hand must help to make that vision happen, meaning they need a deeper understanding of how tech works, and how each product will fit in with other tools used by the business.

In an organisation that has both a CIO and a CTO, the CTO would primarily be focused on discovering new technologies and innovating at the technical level, whereas the CIO would be tasked with introducing new technologies into the organisation, and dealing with the operational and managerial tasks surrounding that.

What skills does each role require?

As discussed, the skills required of a CIO have evolved, with a modern CIO becoming a business leader and strategic thinker, more closely aligning themselves with the C-suite. The core skills have moved away from IT, to instead having a wider knowledge of tech, skills in building relationships with other business leaders, and working closely with the financial, HR and marketing departments of the organisation.

These responsibilities mean that CIOs must be business-minded with excellent interpersonal and people management skills, in addition to technological know-how.

In some organisations, the hiring of a CTO is expected to offer a greater opportunity to add value to the business because they are the one responsible for innovating in the technological sphere and coming up with ideas about how to improve the company's tech offering to clients. This requires CTOs to be creative, experimental and dynamic, as well as highly technically skilled in order to fulfil their role.

A CTO requires technical knowledge and leadership skills; they get IT projects up and off the ground, and bring new tools to the business. They also must be customer-focused and adaptive, allowing them to deliver the best products to the company's clients.

How it works in the real world

But how do the differences between the two roles play out in a business setting? "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," multiple CIO 100 member Bill Wilkins of First Utility, told CIO UK.

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Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust CIO Rachel Dunscombe also pointed out that the organisation's CTO is the true technical expert of the Trust, with a crucial role scanning the tech horizon in order to assist the CIO. The CTO reports in to Dunscombe, who now has the title Digital Director.

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 knowledge from her own experience. 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.

JLL EMEA CIO, Chris Zissis says he is responsible for the full value chain of technology and data from business engagement, strategy and formation delivery and much more. He receives reports from CIOs and CTOs across his region who report to Zissis, and says they differ in one specific regard.

"In our organisation, being a CIO and CTO doesn't really differentiate you from a skills and capability perspective, but we differentiate the roles from an accountability perspective," says Zissis. "Our CIOs are focused on delivering the strategy to the geographic clusters and markets and our CTOs are the co-enabler either through applications or infrastructure and operations that make sure we can take those deliverables, scale them across geographies, and constantly apply best practice as we do so."

But what about positions that combine the responsibilities of both a CTO and a CIO? Sheri Rhodes acts as both CIO and CTO of Western Union in the US, and states that her overall goal bridges her two positions. " Regardless of whether I am wearing a CIO or CTO hat, I am responsible for leading the fintech agenda, which has a key emphasis on driving customer engagement with our digital channels," she says.

Her focus as CIO is on IT, she says, including corporate IT, while in her position as CTO, she is focused on customer facing services as well as intellectual property.


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.

Read next: Evolution of the CIO - From IT gatekeeper to strategic business leader

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