From CDO to CTIO – what tech leader job titles really mean, and who calls the shots

March 22, 2023
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In this article, Lily Haake, Head of Technology & Digital Executive Search at Harvey Nash, looks at the different C-Suite job titles and what they do for this article that first appeared on

In your organisation, do you have a CIO? A CTO? A CTIO? We offer a brief guide to the top roles in IT and the differences between them.

In your organisation, do you have a CIO? A CTO? A CTIO, perhaps?

Technology is notorious for its acronym-laden array of job titles. Indeed, almost like software code they seem to keep on proliferating.

This is doubtless because technology is itself such a fast-moving area – as the field of responsibilities and priorities keeps shifting and developing, so job titles keep evolving too.

In recent times, we’ve started to see all sorts of new roles and titles created – even extending to Chief Robotics Officer and VP of Future.

The result is that every business seems to have an almost unique combination of post-holders and titles. Nevertheless, as a recruiter of senior tech professionals, I see a number of common themes and linkages between the key figures. So, here is a list of eight of the top tech leader job titles – and what they mean and how they inter-relate.


We start with the classic number one position – the Chief Information Officer, traditionally responsible for all IT within an organisation. In most FTSE and Fortune businesses, you will still find a CIO at the top of the technology tree.

But of course, the role has been changing as technology has expanded from back-office IT systems run through on-premise servers to take in cloud, digital and more open, outward-facing platforms.

The CIO will set the strategy for IT, and they often sit on the Operating Board (65% of them do according to the latest Nash Squared Digital Leadership Report). If they don’t sit on the Operating Board, they’ll report into it.

They look after, and lead, everything from applications, infrastructure and cloud to projects/products, innovation and change. The CIO usually also has IT security, data and digital within their brief, although these may sometimes fall outside of their remit.

CDO (Digital)

There are two main and emerging ‘challengers’ to the dominance of the CIO (or the CIO name) as technology changes, expands and becomes more pervasive across organisations – one of these is the Chief Digital Officer, while the other is the CTO (next on my list). In most cases, there will either be a CIO or a CDO or a CTO.

What’s the difference? The CDO may suggest that the leader has more bias towards customer-facing technologies – they might be more focused on revenue generation or marketing and marketing technology. They tend to be forward-looking and very focused on innovation.

However, it is true that some CDOs sit alongside a CIO, whereby the CIO manages internal systems and infrastructure and the CDO focuses on the online world – web, mobile, marketing, portals. In this instance, the CDO might be more senior, more junior, or a peer to the CIO depending on the context.


Like CDOs, Chief Technology Officers are very much on the rise. Particularly in technology companies themselves and in start-ups, you are likely to find a CTO at the head of the ship rather than a CIO, and this is also the case in many legacy businesses who are aiming to transform themselves into technology-led organisations: the emphasis on technology in the title better reflects the wider brief of today’s digital leader.

So, the CTO role is very much ‘of our times’. There again, the CTO could also be a number two to the CIO who leads all of technology, architecture and/or software engineering. In the past the CTO also used to refer to the top leader in infrastructure, but we see that less commonly now.

CDO (Data)

With data so critical to business performance and customer-centricity, the Chief Data Officer has a key role. The CDO sometimes reports into the CIO - but may report to the CEO or COO instead.

The CDO will lead data strategy, governance, analytics, BI and reporting, data innovation and monetisation. Data is commonly understood to be the concern of the entire organisation, and as such many CDOs feel that being siloed within the technology function doesn’t allow them to be most effective.

That said, more recently we’ve seen that in the more advanced organisations with cloud based, product and platform cultures, the CDO may have come up the data engineering route and will be very much a technologist – they will happily sit in the tech function and lead teams of data engineers to build platforms and products and enable real-time streaming.


Like the CDO (Data), this is another role that is relatively unambiguous in its scope. The Chief Information Security Officer is the leader in the key areas of cyber, information and technology security.

They will lead the organisation’s strategy to protect against the growing threat of cyber attacks, and recover swiftly from those that do happen. They will constantly evaluate risk. The CISO may report into the CIO, but they may also be a peer to them, reporting into the COO (or even the CFO) instead.

Like data, security is a concern for the entire organisation and as such it can be beneficial for the CISO to have a peer relationship with other business executives.


The Chief Product Officer leads on overall (digital) product strategy and ownership for the business. They are usually a peer to the CIO/CTO.  

Historically, the CPO has mostly been found in technology companies and start-ups, but as all businesses evolve into technology-first organisations with customers at their heart, the CPO role is on the rise.

This person will be responsible for aligning the product strategy to the business strategy, and is ultimately accountable for ensuring all products within the organisation are successful and profitable.

The hybrid roles


Hybrid roles have been very much on the rise recently, especially at the top end. Instead of having ‘just’ a CIO or CDO or CTO, Chief Technology & Information Officers are becoming more common. It’s a role that combines accountability for IT with technology/product delivery.

The CTIO will act as an internal advisor to the Board on information strategy, infrastructure and systems as well as being the leader in new product development with an eye to the future and a horizon-scanning mindset.


Another hybrid alternative is the Chief Digital & Information Officer (or sometimes without the ‘and’ – Chief Digital Information Officer!) combining accountability for IT with digital. It’s a blend of internal IT with web, mobile, digital and potentially marketing too.

What’s your dream team?

Of course, there are no ‘right’ answers or combinations to the tech leadership puzzle. There is no encyclopaedia of tech leadership roles together with a handy set of rules.

For most organisations the real question is ‘how do we maximise the business value we can create from technology?’

Different organisations may focus on different things: for some it may be customers and new products; for others it may be data, and for many it might be simply to ensure efficient operations. Each focus brings with it a different ‘champion’ and resulting reporting lines.

For a Digital Leader, whatever flavour you are, understanding where this value is created is key to unlocking potential in your company, and your career.

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