What is the difference between a CTO and a HoD?

Very often I stumble upon the use of the two titles “CTO” (Chief Technology Officer) and “HoD” (Head of Development) used side-by-side. Depending on the organisation, the titles are used in direct substitution for each other. And in a couple of instances I have even seen one person holding the title “Head of Development, CTO”.

I’m not going to step out of my way here to tell you that it’s wrong. Each organisation has its own way of making a title useless, however, I would like to share my opinion on why I think there’s a world of difference between the two titles and why both of them needs to be in a development department in IT today.

We are going a bit back to the same discussion I raised in my previous article about wether a ScrumMaster should be a technical or people manager. In my best belief, the CTO and the HoD are two different roles that should NOT be combined in one role, and here’s why:

The CTO is a technical person, who can lead the technical platform, infrastructure and the digital strategy in the way that the company wants it to go. He/she is responsible for making the technical decisions that eventually will help the company in achieving their goals. Which tools to integrate, which frameworks to use, which cloud services to utilise and in general, be the one who takes the first step in embracing new technologies. A strong technical person, who is often found within the organisation as e.g. a senior developer or system architect.

The HoD is a people manager. I would be lying if I proclaimed that he shouldn’t be good with technologies, but his first and foremost collaborator should be (I’m sure you can guess it…) the CTO. The HoD have to ensure that the people working with the technologies are the correct ones. The best of the best. He needs to set the team based on the strategy he makes with the CTO and the rest of the management, but he does NOT take responsibility for the tech-stack. A HoD is most often recruited from the outside to bringe in “a breath of fresh air” to manage people.

Of course there’s many places where this is different – and I know that there’s some people who care more about the C-level title (CTO) than the non C-level title, the HoD. And if your organisation is build on the typical C-level structure, then your CTO would refer to the CIO (Chief Information Officer) – but so would the HoD. With the creativity that exists in the C-level hyped community, I’m sure there’s a C-level title that will fit the description of the HoD. If not, then probably you should just accept that you’re not a C-level person as a HoD… As long as you don’t misuse the titles in order to get an extra star on your shoulder.

I get a lot of questions why I am so hung up on the “technical” vs “people” way of coaching/managing people. First of all, it’s not black and white. I choose to describe it this way to make it very clear. But truth is, that there’s always a mix of competences or an organisation where these thesises does not apply. Nevertheless, the difference between a “technical” and “people” minded person can in many instances become the small factor between failure or success. Especially when you’re dealing with something so delicate as e.g. outsourcing or outstaffing. Sometimes culture or individuals are more important than which IDE or framework to develop up against. Sometimes shy introvert people (and there’s a lot of of those around in the development teams) have the most brilliant ideas – they’re just not able to get them off their chest because they don’t have a facilitator who understand the human values rather than the technical arguments.

I hope you’ll find your own mix of using the titles and I hope you understand the importance in thinking about wether your current CTO or HoD is a a “technical” or “people” minded person.