Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Chief Information Officer (CIO), Chief Digital Officer (CDO), and Chief Information Security officer (CSO or CISO): in this article we explore the main differences between these commonly confused C-Suite IT Executive positions / job titles, and demystify the relationship dynamics between each one of them.
With so many top-level IT managers & execs, it can be quite difficult to understand the differences between each role, and why companies have so many of them. After all, their positions can seem extremely similar, sharing many of the same roles & responsibilities, and even the same educational backgrounds.
So, how can they be distinguished, who reports to who, and why do companies choose to hire so many C-suite IT executives who all earn such high pay? That is what we will try to answer by the end of this article through the following sections:
The Top-Level C-Suite IT Executives: A Detailed Comparison
To begin, it is important to note that many of these roles seem so similar because they all evolved from one common, general IT position, the CIO. Back when companies were just getting started with incorporating technology into their day-to-day activities, one technical executive was more than enough to cover all the necessary bases.
However, as technology advanced and corporations began to use data, tech, information, statistics, and software systems, an increasing need for more roles was created; thus, allowing for the separation of positions into different responsibility categories. Today, they are all considered equally important for the long-term success of an organization.
Still, this isn’t to say that all companies opt to fill all these roles; smaller organizations with tighter budgets and funding may prioritize one position over all others. Regardless, as a company grows, so do its staff needs too, and technical executives are about as important as they come.
The distinguishing factors of each role are clearly explained in order to provide insight as to why companies choose to hire them. Here’s a brief summary of each of the positions:
Chief Information Officer (CIO)
This executive is in charge of overseeing a business’s strategic IT efforts to be sure they run efficiently, and is responsible for managing and ensuring operations and overall security while integrating the entire IT department.
Developing goals and strategies, researching new systems, improving infrastructure, collaborating with vendors and suppliers, and increasing profitability, a CIO has his hands in many pies at once. More about a CIO’s Job here.
Chief Technology Officer (CTO)
This executive focuses on creating and using technology to promote a business’s growth, centralizing their efforts on external customers who are purchasing company products.
Developing goals and strategies, collaborating with vendors, aligning business goals, and increasing revenue, these are all part of a CTO’s job, who is usually one of the first hires in tech-startups or digital marketing & online publishing firms. More About a CTO’s job here.
Chief Security Officer (CSO)
This executive is in charge of keeping a business’s data and networks secure and guarded as cyber risks rise, working with other C-suite executives and their staff to provide insight on the best protection policies.
He also manages the pen testing teams whether they are internal to the organization or part of an external cybersecurity consulting firm, or just individual white-hat hackers who test the safety of the company’s systems.
Chief Digital Officer (CDO)
This executive is responsible for digitally transforming traditional businesses or business aspects into digital ones, looking at new markets, channels, and models to implement to scale up the business.
However, simply reviewing this information does not give all the necessary insight as to what the key distinctions between each role are. As technology continues to advance and businesses continue to grow, many new tech-related C-level positions have been added and keeping up with their distinctions and key roles can be a challenging and confusing task. These positions can sound very similar, in fact, they may overlap in many areas.
It is important to acknowledge that the number of tasks that companies are seeking to complete is extensive and growing, so dividing them amongst a variety of workers is crucial in order to be able to effectively accomplish them all.
This is the main reason why so many businesses decide to hire multiple people to seemingly do the ‘same job’, which is using technology to improve and advance the business.
As time went on, responsibilities and roles grew, and with it, the need for more positions to handle it all. For the purposes of this article, each executive level will be compared to and distinguished from Chief Information Officers, as they tend to have the most in common with each position:
CTO vs CIO
Uncovering the key distinguishing factors between CTOs and CIOs may be the most difficult for the majority of people. The CTO position originally branched out from the CIO position, and both are considered equally important because they contribute to the business’s functioning by developing tech-related goals and strategies and working to increase company efficiency. In companies where both roles exist, these executives collaborate regularly to accomplish these goals. However, these two positions are most easily understood as working on two sides of the same coin.
The key differences between CTO vs CIO:
- CTOs focus on external products while CIOs focus on internal processes
- CTOs focus on increasing revenue (generated income) while CIOs focus on increasing profitability (value after expenses)
- CTOs inspire innovation in their staff while CIOs inspire productivity in their staff
- CTOs are responsible for operations while CIOs are responsible for the company’s engineers and developers
- Finally, CTOs aim their efforts towards customers while CIOs focus on employees
CDO vs CIO
The CDO position is relatively new and is also an extension of the CIO title. Both have a strong business understanding, bring value to organizations, align their responsibilities to company goals, and have technical backgrounds.
So why are companies hiring both? Ultimately, the role and responsibilities of a Chief Digital Officer are what CIO do in smaller-scale companies; that is, exploring new possible avenues for expanding digitally. This specific position was created to alleviate some of the growing responsibilities that CIOs have, delegating tasks and management focuses in order to effectively get tasks done.
A CDO focuses on determining which parts of a business are able to change and expand, where CIOs may not have the time to make this their top priority.
CSO vs CIO
Meanwhile, the Chief Security Officer (CSO), sometimes also described as Chief Information Security Officers (CISO) may be easier to differentiate. These executives focus on the organization’s security, taking into account any operational risks to physical and cyber security, while collaborating with other executives by offering advice in this area during planning and strategy development. Ultimately, they work to ensure that companies proactively consider security an asset and an essential aspect of their mission as opposed to an afterthought. Like the other executives, CSO are expected to be problem solvers and work closely within the IT departments to establish these goals and strategies.
CTO vs CIO vs CDO vs CSO : Who Reports to Who?
In businesses where there is only one IT executive, that position is considered the most-senior IT chief, and they report directly to the CEO. However, where two or more positions are held, most common in big businesses, hierarchical levels tend to get a bit more complicated.
For the most part, CTO and CIO are considered to be on the same level. Still, technically speaking, each of these roles are top executives, meaning one is not superior over another. However, for many businesses, having too many people at the same level can prove to be difficult when trying to engage in discussions and make decisions. For this reason, businesses most commonly choose to have their CDO and CSO reporting to the CIO or CTO, while these positions report to the CEO.
Even so, as the newer positions of CDO and CSO continue to grow and expand, many companies are deciding to have them reporting directly to the CEO as well. This is done to ensure that the issues they deal with are made a critical priority within businesses rather than a message sent from bottom to top. In this case, all the executives make up a collective board of experts who can discuss and align their goals with the main company objective.
Ultimately, the decision is up to the corporation.
All in all, the size of the company, as well as its objectives, are typically what determines how many top-level technical executives work there. Regardless of their title, C-level executives are all working towards the same common goal: developing technology and strategies to help grow a business.
As a result, these positions share many commonalities, and may overlap in several areas. In bigger companies, this overlap is what allows executives to work together as a collective team to see through each of their respective strategies and responsibilities while aligning goals for the most effective approach.
The technical expansion path that companies are on is ever-changing and advancing, reaching new levels that require different areas of expertise and focus to cover all the bases and ensure that no objective is overlooked.
As technology continues to grow, so too will the separation between these roles, and it is entirely possible that new positions will also arise. Anyways if you need more information on the jobs (job descriptions, key roles/responsibilities, salaries, career paths): you can check my articles on the CIO & CTO positions.