"CTO used to be the glamour job," said Peter Woolford, manager of IT and engineering for the Boston staffing firm Kforce Inc. "Generally, one of the company founders or principals stepped into the role, and it meant less involvement in day-to-day management and a focus on playing with new toys."
But as experts and job data reveal, those days are gone and IT professionals who may be aiming to grab a CTO role might want to consider other roles or positions instead.
Then and now
Just a few years ago, minimum starting salaries for CTOs started around $150,000, and there were plenty of perks to keep talented tech people from leaving for one of a growing number of companies looking for a CTO.
The career path has certainly changed.
"Now, we're seeing a net reduction in the number of CTO jobs every month," said Woolford. "I can show you a long line of people we respect, people with whom we have a history, people who are very good at what they do, who are out of work—with absolutely no prospects."
In fact, Woolford has clients who have been out of work for over a year, and who have no choice but to apply for—and seriously pursue—lower level IT positions at a significant pay cut.
"For people who took their first management jobs in the 90s, the adjustment period has been ongoing," said Katherine Simmons, president of NETSHARE, a subscription-based job site for executives seeking compensation of at least $100,000 annually. "That market was an anomaly. We’ll never see it again. People need to internalize that reality and move on."
Simmons, who is based in the San Francisco Bay area, noted that many high-level managers are less open to relocation than they were in the past. "There's this post-9/11, war-mentality desire to hunker down and stay where you are. That's an understandable reaction to uncertain times, but it could stop your career," she pointed out.
Experts point out that even if you manage to find work as a CTO, don’t expect the glory salary days of yore.
Robert Half Technology reports that after salary increases of about 10 percent annually in 2000 and 2001, paychecks plunged as low as $94,500 annually—a 37 percent cash drop.
What to expect today
But if you're still gung ho to serve at the helm of the technology architecture role, there are a few ways to bolster your job chances.
When you're working on your resume, it's crucial to focus on your business accomplishments, said Simmons. "At this level, the technical skills are usually equal. What makes a candidate stand out is bottom-line results," Simmons advised. "Make sure your resume has hard numbers and statistics, or it won't get a second glance."
The most difficult path to becoming a CTO is to climb the technical ranks at a technology company, particularly a software vendor, explained Woolford. Lots of people want to be the top technical decision maker in that situation, he pointed out.
An easier way is to take a mid- to high-level position with the IT group at a bank or an insurance company maybe managing application development or infrastructure. Then, if you decide that technology management is really your thing, you'll have fewer people competing with you for the top spot.
Simmons added that she sees bright opportunities at many small to mid-size companies.
"They see this market as a chance to acquire top talent—people who might not have considered working for a smaller company before." And while earning a reduced salary might require some minor lifestyle adjustments, it certainly beats the unemployment line.
A new path to CTO
If you still can't find an open permanent position, there is one other way to stay on top of the technology game.
"We often recommend that people take contract work," said Woolford. "That allows them to maintain their current status level and remain involved and immersed in current technologies." If you have the sales ability, marketing yourself as a consultant can be a good way to ride out the current market.
Consultancy can, in fact, be an excellent way to prove your worth to a company that will one day hire you permanently.
"People with really strong technical backgrounds too often get caught up in technology and forget about doing business," said Simmons. "The higher up the chain you get, the more important strategic planning skills and your ability to manage people are."