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How CTOs contribute to innovation and product management superiority
Today we are talking about senior roles that contribute to innovation, specifically the role of CTO (Chief Technology Officer). Product managers and leaders interact with many people in their organizations, and knowing how to leverage professional relationships is important to success.
Joining us is Steve Orrin, CTO at Intel. Steve orchestrates and executes customer engagements in the federal space, overseeing the development of products to address challenges in government enterprise, national security, and other federal areas of focus. He has a reputation as an industry leader, leveraging a history of delivering results in Innovation, Intrapreneurship, and Entrepreneurship.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[1:52] What’s your role like as Federal Chief Technology Officer (CTO)?
My role is to be the interface between federal customers, the ecosystem that services them, our product line, and the product managers, engineering teams, and executives. I help translate and architect our technologies to match government’s missions and unique challenges. I lead our innovation teams, which are working directly with government customers on technical challenges. This comes in two forms: federalized commercial technology, which is modifying technology that works in other industries for the federal problem set, and pathfinding on new capabilities.
[5:43] How have you seen the CTO role differ in different organizations?
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I’ve seen four types of CTO roles:
- The startup CTO is the Jack of all trades. Their role is to get their hands dirty and initiate the innovation that leads to the first prototype. The CTO typically comes up with the first novel idea upon which everything gets built. Next, it’s important to collaborate early with product management and engineering to get a product from the prototype into the market and continue innovation to introduce future capabilities and evangelize what the product does. As a startup CTO, one of my first hires is a product manager, a key role in finding the requirements that meet the minimum viable product. After that, I bring in a VP of engineering who oversees the architects and developers.
- The CTO in a more established, larger company drives innovation and the incubation team. Once you have your product established, the CTO looks for the next big opportunity.
- The product-line CTO in large organizations owns a particular technology or product category. This is an evolution of the second type above to a larger scale. The field CTO is closely aligned with the sales and business development teams. They do technical evangelism, speak to customers, and become the voice of the customer to the organization.
- The fourth type is a blending of the other three roles, and is most closely aligned to my role. It involves product evangelism, being the voice of the customer, and driving innovation.
[11:56] Can you compare and contrast your role as CTO with the roles of product VPs or product officers?
At Intel, I work with product managers, engineering managers, and engineering directors. I think about now, next, and after. The VP of engineering is focused on now—building the product with the current requirements to get it out the door with the maximum amount of bug fixes in a particular timeframe with particular resources. The product manager is focused on the next—the key customer requirements we need to solve to continue to be viable and the bug fixes critical for customers. The next phase of innovation or after comes from the CTO.
The CTO must manage the balance between product management, innovation, and engineering. The CTO is thinking about the next big non-organic growth opportunity, while the product manager is focused on solving the current customer’s problems, and the VP of engineering is managing resources. I negotiate among these roles. I need to understand the key things I want to get into the product today that help build out the capabilities for what’s next and after. Some of the best successes I’ve seen come from not solving the big problem today but putting key features into the road map so we have the building blocks for an innovation team to later build a novel capability on top of a core feature. You show that to a customer and get validation; then the product manager gets involved to build the big innovation.
The most successful organizations have product management, engineering, and the CTO working together in tandem as peers.
[17:14] How do CTOs contribute to innovation?
The role of the CTO is to be the focal point for innovation. Successful CTOs drive and lead innovation but also recognize innovation can come from many places—engineering, product managers, the help desk, finance, etc. The CTO collects and fosters innovation and helps drive the transition to make products a reality. We navigate products out of the lab into the real world. The CTO is the voice of innovation for the company. Wherever innovation is happening, we foster it and encourage people to try new things. We’re the voice of innovation beyond the organization, allowing engineers and architects to speak about their innovations inside and outside the company. The CTO helps make sure innovation isn’t lost but is fostered and encouraged throughout the organization.
[24:36] Have you had success letting customers co-develop products with you?
Absolutely. When you put hook points into a feature, then you can build innovations off to the side later. For example, expose some APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) that you can later use to build widgets that demonstrate a new capability or add a new feature. When you get customers involved early in the development cycle, the product you end up with is much more aligned to what they need than to what you think they need. When I meet with customers, I don’t just have the VP of engineering and the VP of product management there—I also bring the engineers along. Even if they’re just listening, they can pick up on things we don’t and get inspired by something the customer says. It gives the developers a sense of ownership when they recognize they’re part of the conversation, which is invaluable for spawning innovation in interesting places.
[28:50] What can CTOs do to better interact with engineering and product VPs?
Don’t make the relationship adversarial. Be the advocate of the VP of engineering, communicating to management why they need more resources or infrastructure. Help brief executives on the product, how the engineering process is going, why it matters to the customer, and how it drives revenue and new customer adoption. Have realistic expectations—there’s only so much code you can pump out in a day. Spend time with the engineering team to see their challenges, and be a resource for solving technical issues.
The product VP, product management VP, and/or CPO, and CTO should be best buddies. We work in tandem together, because we’re trying to solve the same problem—what are the key requirements necessary to make our customer and company successful? There’s a lot of intersection between what’s next and what’s after next, so the CTO and product VP should be working together on the requirements definition. They each have different sources of information that can help the other make decisions.
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“Surround yourself with people smarter than yourself and listen to them.” – Jim Collins
Thank you for taking the journey to product mastery and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.