CTO vs CIO: The Differences in role and responsibilities

Hey, you! Are you a CTO? Or are you a CIO? What’s the difference?

On the internet, at least, there appears to be much confusion over what CTOs do. CTO of x company does this and the other, CTO of y company does this, that, but never the other. Admittedly, it’s a position that’s rapidly evolving and changing to match our continuing technological advancements. 

As someone who’s been a startup CTO many times during the past decade, I’d like to briefly share my thoughts on the subject. Especially as the role relates to startups, rather than corporate giants. 

To give you a bit of context, it was common practice for companies to have only a Chief Information Officer (CIO) before the dot-com bubble of the 90s. Yet as the role of technology grew in our lives, large corporations soon realized that one person could not effectively address their internal and external technological operations. Out of this need came the CTO. 

NOTELet me be clear from the get-go: startups have only the CTO position, corporations may have a CIO and CTO. We’ll get into why this is the case later on in the article, but you should know that startup CTOs are expected to perform the duties of a CIO. 

So CTO vs CIO, who does what?

Depending on the industry and company, the particulars of each position might be different. But this is a general rule of thumb. 


A Chief Technology Officer (CTO) oversees the development of the products and services to grow the company externally. They are focused on catering to the external user. 

A Chief Information Officer (CIO) oversees the internal, day-to-day technological operations of the company. They ensure the company’s tech works optimally for your employees.  

A CTO’s responsibilities

CTOs have business savvy and technical expertise. They not only monitor trends/developments in technology and figure out how they can be uniquely leveraged in their company’s offerings, but they also work out how to best market the brand to investors and the end-user.

Here are some of the responsibilities I have had as a CTO: 

Vision & Direction

  • Monitor social, scientific, and technological trends/developments, especially those that could influence the company’s goals, vision, and/or direction. 
  • Devise strategies on how new technology can be leveraged to create and/or improve on products/services and distinguish them from competition 
  • Take part in corporate governance (e.g. making decisions about the company’s vision and direction, how to best run the business, etc.) 

Research & Development

  • Keep up to date on current IT standards and compliance regulations
  • Identify and oversee the development of new technologies, products, and features


  • Articulate the company’s technology plans to external partners, investors, management, and employees
  • Implement marketing strategies to build and develop relationships with vendors and customers
KEY TAKEAWAYSCTOs focus on developing products/services for the external user. They have marketing and sales experience to go with their technical expertise, so they have considerable influence in deciding a company’s vision and direction. 

A CIO’s responsibilities

CIOs work to keep the business’ technological operations optimized. With so much of our work being performed digitally now, CIOs develop and improve on the infrastructure in place, so business units and employees can output their best work in an efficient manner. CIOs are crucial to the day-to-day operations of a company, regardless of their products or services.  

Infrastructure Management

  • Maintain company’s internal technological infrastructure
  • Lead IT departments and operations
  • Liaise with vendors supplying infrastructure solutions

Improvement of Internal Processes

  • Pinpoint areas within the system that are underperforming
  • Align the infrastructure to meet business goals

Internally focused

  • Provide best technology solutions for employees to optimize performance
  • Integrate technology in business units to streamline and increase productivity across
KEY TAKEAWAYCIOs improve on existing processes, integrating and streamlining technology within the business. They ensure operations are running optimally, as far as technology goes. 

CTO vs CIO? Which one do you need?

It’s often the case that mid-to-large size companies have a CTO and CIO. That’s possible with a high executive budget, of course. 

Having co-founded startups, I intimately know about the never-ending budgetary nightmares. There just isn’t enough money to have a CTO and a CIO. 

In the startup world, again, CTOs will fill both roles.

All things equal, if you’re choosing between someone with experience as a CTO and another with CIO experience, you should go with the CTO. Why?

You have to have a product, no? You’ve got to get your idea out there and get it rigorously tested by real people. If you don’t have much technical knowledge, then you definitely need someone who’ll oversee your engineering team. 

  • Help develop vision and direction

As you test and iterate the product/service, your vision and direction will change. You need someone who’s knowledgeable about current trends in the marketplace. This will help you differentiate your company from your competitors. 

  • Communicating the value of your product/service

CTOs have the experience to effectively communicate your technological strategy to non-technical audiences. From most consumers to investors, they may be somewhat familiar with the technology but won’t understand what is different or revolutionary about what you’re making.  

I’d love to hear from you

First-timers, in particular, have trouble picking the partner who can complement your skillset and bring the experience you have yet to gain.

DID YOU KNOW?Initial valuations for startups run by repeat founders are 50% higher than the valuations for first timers. 

Some startup veterans offer their expertise and services to help you build your startup from the ground up. Most will have worked as CTOs or CEOs only, but I have experienced both sides. 

I’m looking to partner with serious entrepreneurs who have bold ideas but realistic plans. 

If you think you’ve got a game-changing startup, I’d love to hear from you.