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A chief technology officer (CTO), sometimes known as a chief technical officer or chief technologist, is an executive-level position in a company or other entity whose occupation is focused on scientific and technological issues within an organization.
After World War II, large corporations established research laboratories at locations separate from their headquarters. Their goal was to hire scientists and offer them facilities to research on behalf of the company without the burdens of day-to-day office work.
At that time, the director of the laboratory was a corporate vice president who did not participate in the company’s corporate decisions. Instead, this technical director was the responsible for attracting new scientists, do research, and develop products.
In the '80s, the role of these research directors changed substantially. Since technology was becoming a substantial part of most products and services, companies needed an operational executive who could understand the product’s technical side and provide advice on ways to improve and develop it.
A chief technology officer (CTO), "examines the short and long term needs of an organization, and utilizes capital to make investments designed to help the organization reach its objectives ... [the CTO] is the highest technology executive position within a company and leads the technology or engineering department". 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".
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