A chief technology officer (CTO), sometimes known as a chief technical officer, is an executive-level position in a company or other entity whose occupation is focused on scientific and technological issues within an organization.
The role became prominent with the ascent of the information technology (IT) industry, but has since become prevalent in technology-based industries of all types—including computer based technologies (such as game developer, e-commerce, and social networking service) and other/non-computer-focused technology (such as biotech/pharma, defense, and automotive). In non-technical organizations as a corporate officer position, the CTO typically reports directly to the chief information officer (CIO) and is primarily concerned with long-term and "big picture" issues (while still having deep technical knowledge of the relevant field). In technology-focused organizations, the CIO and CTO positions can be at the same level, with the CIO focused on the information technology and the CTO focused on the core company and other supporting technologies.
Depending on company structure and hierarchy, there may also be positions such as director of R&D and vice president of engineering whom the CTO interacts with or oversees. The CTO also needs a working familiarity with regulatory (e.g. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, Consumer Product Safety Commission, as applicable) and intellectual property (IP) issues (e.g. patents, trade secrets, license contracts), and an ability to interface with legal counsel to incorporate those considerations into strategic planning and inter-company negotiations.
In many older industries (whose existence may predate IT automation) such as manufacturing, shipping or banking, an executive role of the CTO would often arise out of the process of automating existing activities; in these cases, any CTO-like role would only emerge if and when efforts would be made to develop truly novel technologies (either for facilitating internal operations or for enhancing products/services being provided), perhaps through "intrapreneuring."
Comparisons to similarly titled roles
Chief information officer (CIO)
The focus of a CTO may be contrasted with that of a chief information officer (CIO). A CIO is likely to solve organizational problems through acquiring and adapting existing technologies (especially those of an IT nature), whereas a CTO principally oversees development of new technologies (of various types). Many large companies have both positions.
Another major distinction is between technologies that a firm seeks to actually develop to commercialize itself vs. technologies that support or enable a firm to carry out its ongoing operations. A CTO is focused on technology integral to products being sold to customers or clients, while a CIO is a more internally oriented position focused on technology needed for running the company (and in IT fields, for maintaining foundational software platforms for any new applications). Accordingly, a CTO is more likely to be integrally involved with formulating intellectual property (IP) strategies and exploiting proprietary technologies.
In an enterprise whose primary technology matters are addressable by ready-made technologies (which, by definition, is not the case for any companies whose very purpose is to develop new technologies), a CIO might be the primary officer overseeing technology issues at the executive level. In an enterprise whose primary technology concerns do involve developing (or marketing) new technologies, a CTO is more likely to be the primary representative of these concerns at the executive level.
Chief science officer (CSO)
In some organizations, the CTO may also hold the chief science officer (CSO) title. Alternatively, a company could have one or the other, or both occupied by separate people. Often, a CSO exists in heavily research-oriented companies, while a CTO exists in product-development-focused companies. The typical category of research and development that exists in many science and technology companies could be led by either post, depending on which area is the organization's primary focus.
A CSO almost always has a basic/pure science background (e.g. biology, physics, etc.) and an advanced degree in such, whereas a CTO often has a background in engineering or applied science—and possibly business development.