In the early 2000s, most chief technology officers (CTOs) lived under the shadow of their chief information officers (CIOs). Only 13% of IT leaders adopted the CTO title, with three-quarters of CTOs surveyed working in smaller companies earning less than US$100 million in annual revenue, according to the 2001 State of the CIO Survey.
How the tables have turned. CTOs have now become the darlings of the tech industry, earning millions of dollars annually both in and outside the Silicon Valley, and this does not include the lucrative stock options that come with the title.
However, a fatter pay cheque is followed by wildly shifting job requirements and descriptions, none of which is universally set in stone, even today. Not only are CTOs valued based on their flexibility in terms of their expertise and job descriptions, they are also expected to lead the organisation’s digital transformation journey, according to STX Next’s The Global CTO Survey 2020 Report.
“The CTO role in the past had been very technology-focused. Many of the folks had been both behind computers and on the ground, rolling up sleeves and getting things done purely from the technological aspect of the business,” says Vishnu Nambiar, Carsome’s CTO, who was just appointed to the position in August.
“But things are now more agile. We need to wear different hats, such as considering the company’s finances and other operations, supporting the company leadership, and considering how technology can be used to pivot and transform the business.”
An exciting time to become a CTO
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The fundamental role of CTOs — which is to support the company’s technological operations — still applies today, Nambiar stresses. However, there has been an explosive growth of the cloud and other related industries, freeing up CTOs to focus on other core aspects of the business model.
“Many of the back-end operations have been relegated to managed services, and we have a lot of good digital providers within the ecosystems right now. This allows technology leaders to focus on the actual important sections of the business. In our case, it is to streamline the car ownership journey within the Southeast Asian market,” he adds.
Nambiar points out that companies and CEOs today are much more open-minded and well-versed in technology, while also understanding its inherent impact on businesses. This contributes greatly to the growth and responsibilities of the CTO role.
“Not only are my colleagues tech-centric, but they also have the right frame of mind to identify problem statements and figure out what to do from there. I work with a very strong bench of young tech professionals. And it’s important to empower them to solve these problems,” he says.
He adds: “Companies are also much more willing to make investments in technology compared with the past. From a digital standpoint, the pandemic has been an accelerator, and many companies are adapting to this digital wave. Adoption is high, and many companies have come to realise and accept that.”
Nambiar highlights that consumers are also much more accepting of digital solutions. Carsome started its digital transformation journey five years ago because the idea of purchasing and selling cars online was no longer ludicrous by then.
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More importantly, the tech revolution has reshaped how talents learn and implement their skills, especially at the rate that technology is evolving. What was once a highly academic subject is now easily accessible online through free YouTube videos, online workshops or even boot camps, spawning a new generation of tech talents.
He says: “Getting an education from institutions is a checkbox, but it is important to have a support system afterwards. When I started my career about 15 years ago, my education was mostly about traditional IT support infrastructure. There was no reliable support structure after that. Today, the ecosystem has changed, and we now have talents who are mature, agile and have a different way of thinking and resolving problems. Getting good talent today is not a challenge.
“One aspect that we can do better is to have a lot more cross-platform engagements. We need to mentor more technological leaders within organisations. It is one thing to hire more talent, but it’s important to give back as well, considering that I started my career without the same mentorship, leadership and community support.”
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Common IT mistakes during the pandemic
When the pandemic happened, many local companies were left with little choice but to digitalise many of their processes. If these unplanned transformations are rushed, it might be detrimental to the company’s long-term strategy. According to Nambiar, companies should pay attention to facilitating remote working.
“White-collar workers are traditionally dependent on the physical office, and we have to consider how agile they are in adapting to the remote-working environment. Because instead of working from home, it is going to be working from anywhere, be it remotely, from the office or the café. It is important to have systems in place to enable them to be constantly productive,” he says.
Nambiar adds: “The big focus should be on how to keep staff members productive while keeping costs low. It is not just about investing in devices and infrastructure, but also how to enable this new way of working.
“Many companies tend not to consider IT security when making the switch as well, especially when employees work on their personal devices. Con- sider how to protect them, and ensure that customer privacy is still protected along the way.”
The road to CTO
Vishnu Nambiar’s career has revolved entirely around tech. He started out as an engineer and IT lead at companies such as Microsoft, IBM, and Lazada Vietnam, before transitioning to become the chief information officer and chief technology officer of AirAsia. His journey led him to Carsome, the country’s sole tech unicorn company.
What exactly does a CTO do in an online car dealership platform? Nambiar breaks down his job into three main areas — consumers purchasing and selling cars online; setting up an online platform for partner car dealers that are traditionally mom-and-pop stores; and the company’s internal operations.
“In terms of internal operations, we generally go through many processes, from conducting 175-point car inspections and the overall transaction of the car itself to eventually working with the whole finance supply chain and finally delivering the vehicle to the customer. This process started offline with employees working with papers. Now, we have a completely digital system, with areas that can be further digitalised,” he says.
As a new hire, Nambiar stresses the importance of getting into the right frame of mind when joining a new company. The top of his to-do list is to identify the problem statements, prioritising them, and slowly working from there. One of the common mistakes new hires make, he says, is to enter the company with a preconceived notion of the state of the organisation and implement a solution based on that.
“When joining a new company, it is tempting to rely on existing skills and experience as a one-style-fits-all solution, believing that every team and every company is the same,” he says. “These systems exist for a reason, and it is not wise to rock the boat upfront. We have to understand why things are done the way they are in the first place. Only then do we propose solutions, because it is part of earning trust and building credibility towards the solutions you are putting forward.”
Finally, Nambiar reminds newly hired CTOs that not all business problems can be solved with money alone. When encountering a roadblock, it pays to see it through the people, process and technology frameworks, because some of the bottlenecks may be operational in nature rather than due to a lack of resources.
This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia