Join the club and get ahead

Outside of a few MBA programs, there are no schools that formally teach IT professionals how to become chief technology officers. But aspiring technology managers and CTOs who want to learn from their peers can receive an informal education through a number of regional CTO clubs. While there are only a handful of these groups, they appear to be broad enough in scope to help both junior IT managers and seasoned CTOs. More recently, members say, they’ve been especially helpful to managers by providing guidance on how to steer budgets, projects and staffs through tough economic times.

“For the last year, CTOs have needed more mentoring, whether to help downsize their staffs, manage the same workload on a smaller budget or make use of legacy systems at a time when they can’t make expenditures for new ones,” said Curtis Brown, CTO at Oxygen Media Inc., a New York-based operator of a cable TV channel for women.

Jon Williams, CTO at Grey Healthcare Group Inc., a New York-based advertising and communications firm for the health care industry, has pushed for the creation of professional CTO groups as a way to help mentor prospective technology leaders. He is also a co-founder of the New York CTO Club.

The New York CTO Club is limited to about 30 members, who meet for breakfast once a month. Membership and attendance at meetings are by invitation only, and the group doesn’t have a public Web page. Through the group, Williams tries to identify people who are potential CTOs and help them learn management techniques that will serve them well.

“Almost everyone in the group is a good technologist, so they usually don’t need help in that area. We try to help them with management and communications skills,” said Williams, who was previously an IT consultant.

Good technologists often follow the same career path, Williams said. They graduate, become proficient in IT and then discover that they haven’t learned management basics such as how to run a company or manage people. Williams said that the people he aims to help are the ones who have come to the realization that being an expert technologist is not everything you need to be a CTO.

In the Midwest, the Chicago CTO Roundtable meets monthly for what co-founder John Adams calls an opportunity “to bounce ideas off each other, whether it’s about the prices of hardware and software or staffing issues.” Adams, vice-president of technology at CoolSavings Inc., a Chicago-based company that handles corporate sales promotions, said the mission of the roundtable is to provide a forum for discussing common CTO issues and to help some of its 15 members or their guests “who jumped or were pushed into being CTOs a little too early.”

Members of the Chicago CTO Roundtable are the highest-ranking IT executives from their organizations, regardless of their individual job titles. In addition, people with lower-ranking IT titles are welcome as guests of members. Having a mix of people helps promote informative and practical conversations, Adams said. For example, at recent meetings, members and visitors have shared experiences about selecting consultants and choosing the right methodology for implementing new technologies.

Mike Toma, CTO at eLabor Inc., a workforce management software company in Camarillo, Calif., said self-interest propelled him to start the Los Angeles CTO Forum with five other members. He needed a group to discuss managing larger groups of employees. “I tried for years to find CTO groups, but there weren’t any except for large annual events. I wanted a smaller peer group where CTOs could get together,” Toma said. The group is now known as the Technology Leadership Council and has 54 members in chapters in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston.

Toma sees a big need for peer mentoring because most CTOs come from technical backgrounds and haven’t had a chance to develop their people or management skills. “We discuss things such as the various roles of CTOs, the metrics and ROI statistics that are used each day to make decisions and how to deal with the executive management team,” he said.

One of the best things CTO mentors can do is help others choose whether to focus on technology or on management said consultant Andreas Turanski, a member of the New York CTO Club. “Most people can’t be equal in both technology and management. So the best answer is to decide what you should try to pursue,” Turanski said.

Another big issue for many CTOs is the need to learn on the job. “The right people may be in the CTO jobs, but it happened to them too fast. Peer group mentoring can help that situation,” said Eric M. Mark, a New York CTO Club member and CIO at AEGIS Insurance Services Inc. in Jersey City, N.J.

Mentoring is also good for the person doing the teaching, said Oxygen’s Brown, who is a member of the New York CTO Club.

“Mentoring is as satisfying as anything else in my job,” he said. “If I can do something to make someone else do their job better, I’m one satisfied CTO.”