Digital transformation is changing what it means to work in tech

The role of the CIO and CTO have evolved over the years. Now, they are changing again.
Written by Owen Hughes, Senior Editor

Digital transformation has become synonymous with the Covid pandemic - but CIOs and CTOs have been tackling it for years.

Image: Jasper Cole / Getty

Digital transformation is rapidly changing all facets of business, including the roles of those charged with leading their companies into new, technology-driven territories.

Recent months have been a catalyst for even swifter change, with CIOs and CTOs having to balance long-term transformation efforts alongside rapid changes made necessary by the sudden introduction of remote working, although the roots of these projects often go back much further.

"Digital transformations started to become a thing circa 2012," says Gartner analyst, Mark Raskino, who says businesses started to take software seriously once they saw the power of mid-2010s disruptors like Uber, Airbnb and Amazon.

"What [businesses] started creating was these digital officers to kickstart digital transformation, to make sense of what it even was."

SEE: Digital transformation: Five ways to help your business boost customer experience

Back then it was more common to have a chief digital officer acting as the change agent for organisation-wide transformation, whereas the CIO was more likely to be responsible for back-office outsourcing, procurement and standardisation. Fast forward to today, however, and the CIO is increasingly helping chart the course for long-term business strategy.

Helena Nimmo, CIO at software company Endava, says digital transformation has significantly broadened the CIOs' remit. At the same time, she says the events of the past 18 months have demonstrated that technology rollouts are not something that can be done once and then forgotten about.

"Traditionally digital transformation is characterised by sweeping, multi-million-dollar, multi-year digital initiatives with highly ambitious (if vague) end states," Nimmo tells ZDNet. 

"However, needing to constantly re-examine, update, and improve how to use digital technologies to solve business challenges is why companies should approach their use of digital technologies not as a one-and-done transformation process, but an ongoing, continuous process."

Likewise, the CIO role has gone from one concerned predominantly with internal IT to one who influences the digital products and services that get built.

"If you think of the stereotype of the role of the CIO, the CIO has often been considered historically as a cost centre; responsible for providing the basic technology that we use internally, but a lot of sensitivity around budget spend and internal support," says Divanny Lamas, CEO of DevOps orchestration platform Transposit.

"You've got executives who grew up in an era where the CIO just bought technology...now, they're being asked to lead an initiative that's going to lead to the development of an entirely new product, and running a big engineering effort with engineers and DevOps teams."

Chief technology officers have also seen changes to their roles: traditionally focused on developing companies' customer-facing platforms and APIs, CTOs increasingly find themselves leading complex software projects both internally and externally -- and with the CIO reporting directly to them.

"Sometimes, those CIOs who have those skillsets from those previous eras can't cut it, so you start seeing some of that conflict where for the CIOs, it's either innovate or get out, or reporting up to a CTO," says Lamas.

Shifting structures

Structure in IT leadership will vary by organisation. Some will have a CIO and CTO, whereas some might have one but not the other.

Lumi, a regtech and conferencing services provider for companies including BP, HSBC, EasyJet and IBM, hired Marc Harper as its first chief technology officer in June 2021 to steer the digital transformation the business was undergoing amid the worldwide shift to remote working and conferencing.

Harper tells ZDNet that his role has evolved on a near-constant basis since he joined -- not just to support the business strategy for moving to a hybrid working model, but also in bringing out new products.

It's a position that bears little resemblance to the CTO of the previous decade, he says: "The CTO position, if you go back 10 years, was very much about maintaining back of house -- how you maintain your systems, how you maintain your e-commerce platforms. Now, it's more about expanding the capability of the business."

SEE: The CIO's new challenge: Making the case for the next big thing

The explosion of start-ups over the past decade has also intrinsically changed what it means to be a tech leader, with larger companies now looking to their smaller, more agile rivals to determine the direction of their own digital products.

"If you're a smaller company you can influence very quickly, and make changes quickly," says Harper. "If you speak to CTOs and CIOs from larger organisations, while you can define the new strategy and approach, they are quite monolithic in their approach. It's quite difficult to change a ship that's already heading in another direction."

Whatever form digital transformation takes beyond 2021, the role of the CTO and the CIO will continue to evolve as the technological needs of businesses flex to suit new markets and customers. COVID-19 has demonstrated the need for IT leaders to be able to think on their feet and adapt quickly; the ability to remain agile is, therefore, likely to be a key determinant of successful tech leadership in the months and years to come.

There's also likely to be some degree of convergence between the roles of CTO and CIO as organisations attempt to consolidate traditional IT strategy and management with in-house software development. "In the tech industry, CIO and CTOs are very much starting to become hybrid roles," says Lamas.

"The CEO wants someone on their team who is going to be able to stay on the pulse of what is happening from a technology perspective, and provide a really deep understanding of what's important, where they should invest, and where they should go."

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