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4 Hallmarks of a world-class CTO
  • Insight

What made the world’s largest tech investor label this CTO ‘world class’?

A client asked me recently about a project I’d written about. The challenge was considerable: to reduce cloud costs by 50% over two years while increasing productivity along the way.

What he found remarkable wasn’t that we helped that company deliver its objective (he knows what we’re capable of!). He was more interested in the impact on the CTO’s standing within the company. The Board, which included the world’s largest technology investor, heralded the team as ‘world class’ as a result of their achievements.

It got me wondering. What moved the Board to offer such high praise? What constitutes ‘world class’ performance in a CTO? We’ve worked with dozens of tech team leaders over the years across retail, travel, e-commerce and telecoms. Regardless of the industry, a few common themes do emerge.

Most important is the ability to see things in the round. Measured by specific, functional KPIs, individual team leaders lack the incentives to see things from a peer’s perspective. So the CTO’s first job is to prevent teams operating in silos, unable to see the wood for the trees.

When it comes to the cloud, that means encouraging team leaders to lift their head up and see beyond their own interaction with it.

Next is the ability to inspire confidence in the cloud. Many CTOs are tasked with meeting challenging growth targets, cutting costs, or both. When they talk to team heads about the need to do more with less, they often face an inability to divorce cost from capacity.

World-class CTOs show their teams that it’s not just possible to set the bar higher, it’s necessary. When told “We can’t do it,” the reply should be “We can’t not do it” – with the support and direction to back it up with results.

Beyond this, there are four habits or behaviours that we see time and time again in the very best CTOs


1. They understand cost is a symptom, not the underlying problem.

I’m often reminded of this when switching supplier to cut my energy bills. Sure, the unit costs are lower and my monthly payments go down. But it’s barely noticeable. You know what finally moved the needle? Convincing my kids to turn the light off when leaving a room, and spending less time in the shower.

The same principle applies to the cloud. Teams need to have the confidence and ability to take a good look under the hood to find inefficiencies and problems. They need to be able to communicate better, understanding the impact of changes they make on other teams’ performance.


2. They implement a standard model of performance.

Driven by siloed metrics, team leaders each have their own idea of what ‘good’ looks like when it comes to the cloud. One of the CTO’s first jobs then is to provide a universal definition of success.

Here’s an example. One client team was seeing CPU spikes on their database and throwing additional capacity at the ‘problem’. We helped them see that the CPU increases weren’t genuine: instead, they revealed a far more insidious concern in the application layer.

By rooting out the real issue and implementing a standard model of performance we gave them the confidence to reduce platform costs by 75%.


3. They adopt an end-to-end view.

World-class CTOs must have a firm grasp of perspective. This means knowing what matters and must be measured – and what doesn’t. Again, individual teams lack the authority or incentive to question the purpose behind their actions.

Ancestry.com engages its users through the use of ‘hints’ - records attached to others that may help populate your own family tree. In an effort to turbocharge this engagement they built a bespoke machine learning platform to generate and share these hints.

Understandably, the product team had high-performance expectations for the platform. It required an enormous amount of computing and engineering resources to hit its targets. However, our analysis revealed that users didn’t actually want or need hints to be generated for them in near real-time.

As a result of this work, the product team were able to relax their targets, freeing up resources to be allocated to more critical tasks.


4. They upskill their teams and boost confidence.

Business leaders talk about striving for ‘contrary, but true’. One thing world-class CTOs do is challenge their team to think differently, test assumptions and leave their comfort zone. In other words, they change their team’s mindset.

When it comes to working with the cloud this means encouraging the team to do more with less. Most departments, when faced with improving performance or greasing the wheels for growth, will immediately look to increase capacity with its knock-on impact on cost.

Your job is to give your teams the confidence to leave the capacity ‘taps’ alone. First, they must seek out underlying inefficiencies and poor working practices. They must communicate better, understanding the impact of their actions on others downstream.

Confidence comes with training and experience. That’s why we involve your people at every step of the process when we come on board.

Because they’re exposed to our methods and tools, they pick up a bunch of new skills. They understand their interdependence with other teams so we often see an uptick in internal communication and collaboration.

We challenge the way they think about cloud services and they see the results for themselves.


We’ve worked with all manner of CTOs, CIOs and other tech leaders. We’ve seen great leadership which tends to manifest in a few common behaviours which I’ve outlined above.

The cloud is a fundamental component of tech strategy, allowing companies to deploy at scale while tightly managing cost.

The CTO’s job is to find the right balance between performance and expense. Truly world-class leaders – the kind appreciated by boardrooms everywhere - set clear directions then provide the team with the capability and confidence to deliver.


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