Out of the Shadows: The CTO’s Evolution from Technologist to Leader

With Hillary Ross, interviewed by Kate Gamble of HealthSystemCIO.com

Don’t call it a comeback; chief technology officers (CTOs) have been here for years. But, as with many leadership roles in the healthcare IT space, it has evolved significantly, according to Hillary Ross, senior partner and managing director of WittKieffer’s IT Practice, and is no longer confined to “overseeing all technical aspects of a company,” as defined by the Society for Human Resource Management.

In fact, many organizations now view the CTO as a possible successor to the CIO, particularly as they become more involved in developing digital health strategies, and in fostering a culture of innovation. And so, as new and different responsibilities fall into the CTO’s realm — and demand increases for those who can fill the position — how is it impacting other senior leadership roles? What are the qualities organizations are looking for in a CTO? In a recent interview, we spoke with Ross to obtain answers to these and other important questions.

Let’s talk about some of the trends you’re seeing in terms of the CTO position. It almost seems like the role is being revamped. What are your thoughts?

We have been doing a lot of recruiting for chief technology officer positions. But I wouldn’t say it’s a revamping of the role; I would say the role has evolved and the position has changed. In speaking with my colleagues at WittKieffer, we’re all pretty much in agreement that the need for a VP-level CTO has definitely risen in profile. It’s more strategic and more visible. It’s not just about infrastructure operations, although infrastructure is important.

Can you talk more about the evolution of the role?

Sure. One thing I find very interesting is that the CTO is being viewed as a successor to the CIO, whereas typically it was the VP of clinical applications who was on that path. They still are in many cases, but in a lot of instances now, it’s the CTO.

In organizations where we’re doing CTO searches, a few of them actually lost their CTOs to CIO roles at other organizations. When they bring us in to recruit for the CTO position, they tell us to look for possible successors to the CIO position, which is a different skillset than what we’ve looked for in the past. They want someone who can be strategic and make plans, who has budget authority, and who has experience with the cloud, data migration, and integration.

It’s very different from the past, where the technology leader was hiding in the data center. Now it’s a very visible role; someone who can sit down with senior leaders at the highest levels. Someone who can sit next to the CIO at the table, be part of strategic planning, and present to the board. It’s a very different skillset.

As the CIO role has evolved, the CTO role has as well.

What are the key attributes organizations are looking for in a CTO? What might make someone a good candidate?

A big piece of it is their personality. Organizations are looking for a good communicator and a good leader; someone who can mentor and groom his or her team. They’re looking for individuals with leadership qualities; not just technology leaders.

What are some of the expectations the CIOs have for CTOs?

Some CIOs are definitely looking to their CTO to help develop digital products. I think that’s increasingly becoming part of their profile. As organizations focus more on digital health, the CTO is getting more involved in the strategy and development of those products.

What about organizations that also have a chief digital officer? How does that work?

That opens up a whole different discussion. In the most effective scenario, the CDO sits outside of IT and is a peer to the CIO. And so you still need a CTO to help build those products. I imagine it would be a collaborative relationship between the CTO and CDO.

I think the CIO is also looking to the CTO to help establish a culture of innovation as well, whereas in the past, that didn’t necessarily fall into their realm.

How can CTOs help foster innovation?

CTOs can bring innovative technologies to the forefront that fit within the strategic goals of the organization. They can evaluate those technologies and keep the organization up to date on its knowledge of technology standards, industry trends, and emerging technologies, and share that information with other leaders.

What types of organizations are looking to for CTOs?

We’re seeing it across the board. We’re working with everything from academic medical centers to clinically integrated networks. Organizations need someone who has experience with data centers and cloud computing, and who knows the intricacies of data migration.

We’ve seen that there’s a lot of variety in terms of career backgrounds for the CIO role. Are you seeing the same thing with CTOs?

We are, to some extent. Most tend to have backgrounds in computer science and engineering, but there are some with backgrounds fields like psychology, political science, and economics who have been very successful in the role.

Is it common to recruit CTOs from outside of healthcare?

Typically, CTOs tend to come from inside the industry; many have works in consulting. There are roles that lend themselves more to outside experience, like the chief digital officer and chief information security officer. But for CTOs, that knowledge of healthcare is very valuable.

Very interesting. I’m sure this will continue to evolve, like so many things in healthcare. Thank you so much for your time, and I look forward to speaking with you soon.

Thank you, Kate.

This article was originally published on HealthSystemCIO.com. Permission to reprint has been granted.