Fostering a CTO community

When Ragy Thomas became CTO of Bigfoot Interactive, a New York e-mail outsourcing company, he needed help in explaining technology issues to management. He was struggling to convey technical information that was vital to Bigfoot Interactive’s merger with a New York e-mail marketing firm, Expression Engines.

Fortunately, Thomas had a mentor in IT consultant Jon Williams, who had been hired by Bigfoot Interactive to help with the merger.

“I was a programmer, designer, and architect before I was a CTO, so it was hard for me to put down in layman’s terms what was going wrong in IT,” Thomas says. “It was a major challenge to explain these things to management people who didn’t know what was going on, but who didn’t have much time and didn’t want to hear the details.”

This informal schooling is becoming available through the growing number of CTO professional groups. CTOs mentor each other, employees, and IT professionals, with the goal of establishing professional and personal contacts, giving back to the industry, grooming successors, and seeding the industry with future CTO candidates. Along with other New York tech leaders, Williams, now the CTO for Grey Healthcare Group, a New York advertising and communications firm for the health care industry, co-founded the New York City CTO Club.

Part of Williams’ goal as a mentor and a member of the NYC CTO Club is to identify potential CTOs and help them advance. “I think all good technologists go through the same career path: They graduate, become prima donna technologists, and then wake up one day and realize they don’t know everything – they don’t know how to run a company or manage people,” Williams says. “The people I look for are the ones who have come to the realization that being an expert technologist is not everything you need to be a CTO.”

Bigfoot Interactive’s Thomas says what makes the relationships work is a willingness on the part of the mentor to openly discuss technical and management problems. “In the real world, you are always working for yourself and for your company, and as a result you don’t necessarily open up to another person. But Jon and I worked well together because both of us could open up and say, ‘This is why I said this,’ or ‘This is why I did this.’ Jon really helped me by being another person I could talk to,” Thomas says.

Peer-to-peer Communications

Mike Toma, a member of the InfoWorld (US) CTO Advisory Council and CTO of eLabor Inc., a work force management software vendor in Camarillo, Calif., says he founded the Technology Leadership Council in Los Angeles in July 2000, to benefit himself because he needed a resource for peer mentoring. “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.” Today the Technology Leadership Council has 15 members.

The focus is on mentoring existing CTOs, not trying to teach people how to become CTOs, Toma says. “Most CTOs come from technical backgrounds, and where most of them come up short is on the people skills or the management sides of it. We try to get them to understand those business issues so they can make better decisions. 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. CTOs often want to know how to get credibility with management, and how others have dealt with that problem.”

While one of the reasons for the growth in CTO mentoring is the rise of chief technologists in the enterprise, membership in these groups shows that job titles haven’t kept up with the job’s evolving technology and business functions. John Adams, co-founder of the Chicago CTO Roundtable in 1999, is COO of CoolSavings Inc., a Chicago company that handles corporate sales promotions. Adams also is vice-president of technology and sets IT strategy making him, in effect, the CTO.

The group meets monthly for what Adams calls “an opportunity to bounce ideas off each other, whether it’s about the prices of hardware and software or staffing issues.” The value of the group is to help members “who jumped or were pushed into being CTOs a little too early,” he says.

In addition, the Chicago group has extended mentoring to potential CTOs. Members have invited to meetings outsiders who aren’t CTOs but who are high-ranking IT people, such as vice-presidents of technology or product development – people Adams believes are next in line for CTO jobs.

Next-generation Leadership

In helping today’s technologist become tomorrow’s CTO, Adams is careful when offering advice as a mentor. “The best way is not to give them the solution, but to coach them through the process of identifying the answer. I’d rather let them build the conclusion on their own,” he says.

Andreas Turanski, a consultant member of the New York City CTO Club and former vice-president of technology at Bluefly Inc., a New York discount seller of designer clothes, says one of the best ways CTO mentors can help proteges is to decide whether to focus on technology or management. “Trying to juggle those two sides of the job is a big problem for most people, because in reality 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 says. But he has a warning for mentors. “Don’t just tell someone to emphasize management because you did.”

Curtis Brown, CTO of Oxygen Media Inc., operator of the New York-based Oxygen cable TV channel, says that the growth of mentoring in the CTO community is related to the tough economy. “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,” he says.

Brown, a New York City CTO Club member, mentors IT people inside and outside his company; he estimates he spends five to 10 hours a week. “Some of it is done on the job; some it is done by getting together for dinner or a drink after work; some of it is conversations on weekends,” Brown says. “In many ways it’s as satisfying as anything else in my job, because if I can do something to make some else do their job better, I’m one satisfied CTO.”

Williams says he’s learned from mentoring that younger technologists face the same hurdles that he did. “I was an arrogant young man myself. Then I went through the stage of realizing that being a technology expert was not the only thing there was,” Williams says. “Now I’m looking for someone to mentor who realizes that he or she needs help.”

Regional and National CTO Professional Groups

CTO have taken leadership roles by founding forums to discuss technology and management issues.

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