In a previous post, I talked about the rise of fractional roles and how small and scaling businesses can access board-level expertise early in their growth journey through a fractional CTO.

Notably, the previous post talks about the benefits of experience, technology direction and leadership, but does not explicitly mention development.

Firstly, let’s start with a common misconception.

Chief Technology Officer does not equal Developer

Having spoken to businesses in various sectors – since publishing that article and over the years both as a consultant and as part of an agency – it’s clear that sometimes when it comes to senior technical roles, the primary need is specifically hands-on ownership of development. In which case, you don’t necessarily need a CTO, a head of department or additional senior development resource can be a better fit. The title can quickly become an expensive vanity project.

Whilst there’s certainly scope for progression from senior and department head roles into a C-suite position, each position is significantly different and each further removed from the primary focus of being hands-on. Though it might feel like ‘future proofing’ to appoint a development-focused CTO early, there’s also the very real risk of appointing somebody to a position that they are not best positioned for in the long-term. Your immediate focus may be development and thus the hire makes sense now, but are they able to grow with your business in that role? The result of a wrong hire here even with the best intentions can be detrimental to that person and catastrophic to your business.

An experienced Chief Technology Officer is multi-discipline, typically with knowledge of and exposure to facets ranging from hardware, networking and infrastructure through to product management and security, as well as the hands-on development. There’s also soft skills that play an equally important part – emotional intelligence, team leadership and the ability to speak with confidence and protect the technology interests of your business in the boardroom, for example. Both sides are key when it comes to the right hire and not all of it can come from experience.

Common progression paths to CTO

Understandably, particularly when it comes to hiring a first-time CTO, it can feel like the cliché catch-22; a role that requires a level and range of experience that you wouldn’t get without serving the role itself. Like every role, there should be no expectation that any hire is a perfect fit for your business, but one that shows the potential to grow and can be nurtured. Where large businesses have a more significant budget, greater pull and the opportunity to headhunt experience, smaller and scaling businesses may be looking to recruit a CTO or promote a person to the role for the first time.

When it comes to looking at progression paths and hiring a CTO, I recommend focusing on four key areas (the weighting towards each may vary dependent on business size, mission and industry).

Technical expertise

Many CTOs have a strong technical background, often in computer science or a related field. They may have started their careers as web and software developers, engineers, or data scientists, and gradually moved up the ladder to become technical leads, architects, or managers. This path allows them to develop a deep understanding of the technology stack and its potential applications, which is crucial for the CTO role.

Business acumen

In some cases, CTOs may have started their careers in business or management roles, such as product managers, project managers, or consultants. They may have developed a keen understanding of the market, customer needs, and business strategy, which they can apply to their technology decisions. This path can be particularly relevant for CTOs in startups or small companies, where technology decisions have a direct impact on the bottom line.

Industry experience

In some cases, CTOs may have deep expertise in a specific industry or domain, such as eCommerce or finance, across a range of prior roles. This can be particularly relevant for CTOs in large companies or established organisations, where technology decisions need to align with industry standards and regulations.

Entrepreneurial experience

CTOs in startups often have a combination of technical expertise and entrepreneurial experience. They may have founded their own companies, worked in early-stage startups, or been part of a successful exit. This path allows them to understand the unique challenges and opportunities of building a technology-driven business from scratch.

The key responsibilities of a CTO

As the title gives away, a Chief Technology Officer is responsible for leading the technology strategy and overseeing the technical operations of a company, not just ongoing development. Working alongside a wider board and with a team of technical roles, the CTO focuses on:

Technical strategy

The CTO is responsible for developing and executing the company’s technology strategy, including identifying new technology trends and pursuing research and development (R&D), evaluating the potential impact of emerging technologies, and setting the technical direction for the organisation alongside the CEO.


The CTO is responsible for overseeing the technical operations of the company, including infrastructure, software development, testing, and maintenance. This includes managing technical teams, establishing processes and standards for development, and ensuring that the company’s products and services meet high-quality standards.


The CTO is responsible for designing and maintaining the technical architecture of the company’s products and services. This includes selecting the appropriate technology stack, defining data models and system architectures, and ensuring that the technical infrastructure is scalable and secure.


The CTO is responsible for fostering a culture of innovation within the organisation, encouraging experimentation, and driving the development of new technologies and products that can enhance the company’s competitiveness and profitability.


The CTO works closely with other executives, such as the CEO, CFO, and CMO, to align the company’s technology strategy with overall business objectives. They also collaborate with external partners, such as vendors, customers, and industry experts, to stay up-to-date with the latest technology trends and innovations.


The CTO is responsible for identifying and mitigating technical risks, such as security threats, data breaches, and system failures. They also need to ensure that the company’s technology infrastructure complies with industry standards and regulations.

To round off, a CTO does not equal a developer and many early stage businesses or those looking to introduce a technology team for the first time may feel that they need a CTO where in fact they need senior development expertise.

A development role is one of various paths that can serve as a progression point towards becoming a Chief Technology Officer, but it’s an important reminder that there are skills and responsibilities outside of the scope of a developer or engineer that are required for an effective CTO – some that can be learnt on the job and some that can’t.

For businesses looking to understand the role of a Chief Technology Officer further, Embeddable’s services of consultancy and interim management can support you in exploring the role and its responsibilities in your business context, as well as provide short-term and interim management at CTO level.