12 strategic tips CIOs can learn from tech vendor CTOs

The changing landscape of IT, driven by rapid advances in technology and digital transformation, has seen a shift in CIOs’ responsibilities and challenges. CIOs are increasingly doing more software development and technology-focused work as part of their digital transformations, making the adage “every company is a software company” more of a truism with each digital wave.

But even as CIOs familiarize themselves with initiatives such as generative AI pilots, moving to cloud-first, DevOps, and product and services development, there is still much for them to learn, and tech vendor CTOs steeped in these projects and modes of operation are happy to impart a wealth of knowledge.

Regardless of the nature of the projects and deliverables, or whether customers are internal or external to the organization, CTOs and now CIOs recognize they must provide continuous value if they are to stay relevant, says Phil Purdy, acting CTO of Australian-based IMRnext.

“Embracing change, fostering innovation, and maintaining a relentless focus on delivering value will serve CIOs well in this new era of digital transformation,’’ Purdy says.

Here are 12 other tips tech vendor CTOs have to offer CIOs embarking on a more software- and services-defined digital journey.

1. Adopt the new agile

Just as CIOs have begun ramping up their organizations on agile methodologies, it’s important for them to know that the days of Scrum masters and Kanban boards are already past. Instead, today’s agile practices see the introduction of spiral development, which allows faster iteration cycles and off-ramps for products to be adopted and used more rapidly, Purdy says. With iterative development, new features can be anticipated and quickly adapted to constantly changing current and future tech, keeping the product relevant to immediate business needs, he says.

Phil Purdy, acting CTO, IMRnext


This changes the focus from minimum viable product (MVP) to integrated functional capability (IFC), Purdy explains. “The shift to IFCs allows multi-disciplinary teams to iterate separately, but deploy jointly, allowing the critical path in most projects to be greatly reduced, by eliminating cross-functional teams blocking one another,’’ he says.

CIOs can adopt a mindset of continuous innovation and agility, learning from vendors how to quickly adapt to market changes and integrate new technologies into their IT ecosystems, agrees Vahid Kowsari, co-founder and CTO of ixlayer, a cloud-based diagnostic lab testing services platform provider based in San Francisco.

“Adopt agile and DevOps methodologies to enhance the speed of development and deployment,’’ Kowsari says. “These approaches foster collaboration, reduce time-to-market, and improve software quality.”

Sometimes, though, agile gets a bad rap, notes Brad Porter, CTO of St. Louis-based KnowledgeLake, a cloud-native enterprise content management (ECM) platform provider. “People perceive it as the enemy of thoughtful planning. But in reality, it’s about being flexible and adjusting strategies as things evolve,’’ he says.

Moving to this mindset brings a lot to the table, even beyond software development, Porter adds. “It can benefit all teams by providing the capacity to pivot and adapt as new information emerges.”

2. Embrace an engineering-led mindset

David Brassely, CTO at San Francisco-based open-source API platform provider Gravitee, acknowledges that focusing on an engineering-led mindset “is a controversial statement,” and adds that he understands organizations are “sales led.”

“However, we shouldn’t do this at the expense of leading by product,’’ Brassely insists. “This encourages innovation within the organization, doing technology proof-of-concepts, and ensures engineering is included in the company’s success metrics.”

3. Let data drive decision-making

Many CIOs get to where they are because they have significant experience and intuition, Porter says. “But when you oversee a large organization with a multitude of technologies, teams, and departments — gut feeling doesn’t scale. If you aren’t using data analytics tools, you are going to make mistakes and leave money on the table for your organization.”

Brad Porter, CTO, KnowledgeLake


He advises CIOs to listen to the data and use it to drive decisions.

4. Emphasize customer-centric development

Tech vendor CTOs are deeply aware of the importance of understanding customer needs and feedback, says Purdy. “As CIOs delve deeper into product and service offerings, maintaining a sharp focus on the end-user experience is essential. Regular feedback loops, user testing, and customer journey mapping can offer invaluable insights,” he says.

In the past, product development had a tendency to result in a “feature soup” where new features were added on top of old features, without any consideration of the product holistically, he observes. “Today, by taking a laser-focused approach to customer needs and focusing on product first, CIOs can ensure maximum value is delivered in the shortest time.”

Bhawna Singh, CTO of San Francisco-based IAM provider Okta, echoes that, saying that it is critical for CIOs to adopt a customer-centric mindset when investing in new technology and processes for employees.

Bhawna Singh, CTO, Okta


“Understand their needs, expectations, and pain points. Ensure that products deliver real value to them,’’ Singh says. “Just like developing product experiences for customers, it’s crucial to prioritize user experience and design. Intuitive, user-friendly interfaces and well-thought-out user journeys are critical for the success of digital products and services.”

5. Talent trumps process

While processes are critical for efficient deployment of resources and delivering high-quality software in a timely manner, “talent is the single most important driver of a successful software organization,’’ maintains Gravitee’s Brassely.

It is more compelling for technology-led companies whose product is software, he adds. Even in a softening labor market, acquiring top-notch engineering talent remains a daunting task, as there remains incredible competition for A+ engineers, he says.

“This also means offering efficient and streamlined recruiting practices,’’ he says. “Go from interview to offer in a low-friction timely manner. I’ve seen far too many candidates lost due to making them jump through too many hoops.”

It’s your dedicated core team, often celebrated as “key stalwarts” or “rock stars,” who will propel your organization forward, adds KnowledgeLake’s Porter. In light of this, CIOs should not only prioritize technology investments, he says, “but also the development and empowerment of their people, recognizing them as the most valuable assets in the pursuit of progress.”

6. Adopt (and contribute to) open source

The open-source community is a gold mine of innovation, says IMRnext’s Purdy. “By collaborating and contributing, organizations can stay at the forefront of technology, adopt best practices, and leverage collective knowledge, all whilst gaining access to an immediate user base.”

Open source should be part of the equation, Okta’s Singh says. When evaluating a technology to bring into her stack, Singh wants to ensure that “this tech will not box me into a vendor. My team is always looking to bring the best tech, which includes open source at times, so having the ability to integrate with other technology or extend to meet our custom needs is important.”

7. Create an ecosystem of innovation

In an age where tech knowledge is almost commoditized, it’s not just about hiring IT professionals but about finding individuals who combine deep tech savvy with a keen understanding of business strategy, says Purdy.

“By empowering team members and employees to be critical of only delivering outcomes that create value and challenging the status quo, an environment can be established where innovation thrives,’’ he says.

Hiring socially and culturally diverse teams brings varied perspectives, experiences, and problem-solving approaches, fostering creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. “Trust your team members and give them the safety and autonomy to make tough decisions,’’ Purdy says. By creating an environment where failures are seen as learning opportunities, teams are more likely to take risks and come up with groundbreaking ideas.”

This instills a sense of ownership and often leads to more innovative solutions as individuals feel empowered to explore and experiment, he adds. “CIOs can build teams that are not only competent and skilled but also highly adept at fostering new and innovative ideas.”

8. Don’t just plan for now — think about the future

There’s no doubt technology changes quickly. If CIOs are not actively devising a strategy that anticipates the technological landscape of the next three to five years, they are less likely to stay caught up, says Jess Keeney, chief product and technology officer at Duck Creek Technologies, a provider of P&C insurance software, based in Boston.

Jess Keeney, chief product and technology officer, Duck Creek Technologies

Duck Creek Technologies

Emerging technologies such as generative AI, machine learning, and automation have become integral and require a comprehensive understanding of how they align with your organization’s objectives, Keeney says.

“There is still time to embrace technologies that have been postponed or overlooked in the past,’’ she says. “This transition will require taking a holistic, 30,000-foot view of your entire organization, enabling a balanced approach to manage transformation initiatives alongside customer service and satisfaction, and business growth via informed decisions.”

It’s common practice for CIOs to take the safe approach of investing in technology platforms that are robust, proven, and have been around for a while.

“You know it works and that it’s bulletproof,’’ Porter says. But while stability and reliability are crucial, recent leaps in technology, such as the rapid evolution of ChatGPT, highlight the need to be forward-thinking. CIOs must look at platforms and think not only about the present but also the future, he says.

The software choices you make today “should be able to grow and evolve in the face of upcoming changes over the next one, three, or five years,’’ Porter says. “Also, understand that you’re not merely investing in a software package but in the company behind it. Are they agile and forward-looking? If the answer is no, you may pick something safe and probably not future-proofed for the change.”

As a technologist, the CIO has the unique opportunity to envision the future. “This vision doesn’t have to revolve solely around incremental improvements; it can take a bold, innovative direction. You can explore entirely new approaches to eliminate existing problems,’’ he says.

It behooves CIOs to think beyond day-to-day operations and engage in more ambitious, forward-thinking endeavors, taking advantage of the latest and most exciting technologies, Porter says.

9. Deal with technical debt now

Technical debt is like the tax man: Sooner or later you’re going to have to pay it, notes Brassely.Technical debt can start slow — so slow, in fact, that it’s easy to defer addressing it to the next sprint.”

But then one day, you realize you can no longer innovate as well or release as fast because it’s time to pay the debt, he says. “Invest early and often in addressing your technical debt. Elevate technical debt to be a first-class citizen in all your sprint planning.” 

10. Democratize — and take care of your users

The transition to cloud offerings means yielding some control to external vendors, but security, of course, remains paramount, says Porter. Robust vendor management, risk analysis, and a proactive security culture are essential when going through a third party, he says. This doesn’t mean IT can drop the ball.

“Your people can’t be afraid to raise their hands and express concerns about vulnerabilities,’’ Porter stresses. “Having a proactive security mindset and culture that encourages teams to speak up when they think there may be a problem is critical.”

In terms of choosing the right tools and vendors, user experience is a pivotal factor. The younger generation entering the workforce has grown up in the mobile era, accustomed to fast, fluid, and rich experiences on their smartphones, he says.

“The days of clunky, outdated software are over,’’ Porter says. “They demand ease of use, efficiency, and seamless functionality to accomplish their tasks quickly. The user experience is often overlooked by CIOs when, in reality, it should be at the forefront of technology decisions.”

11. Empower your staff to explore

It’s essential to recognize that it’s more than just the CTO or CIO’s responsibility to possess all the answers. “While we do have the privilege of thinking strategically about the business, every employee should share in the expectation of contributing to the business’s evolution and growth,’’ says Porter.

To foster this all-hands approach to tech advancement, all employees should be given dedicated time to reflect, brainstorm, and prototype, he advises.

“When employees are stretched to their limits, focusing solely on their daily tasks, they become limited to pulling one lever up and down rather than transforming that lever into a steering wheel,’’ Porter says. “It’s crucial to provide employees with opportunities to explore and experience new technologies.”

12. Move beyond purchase to partnership

Even with all that CIOs bring to the table, they should recognize the value of partnering with their vendors in a variety of ways.

Vahid Kowsari, co-founder and CTO, ixlayer


For example, CTOs of tech vendors often have a keen sense of return on investment and cost optimization that CIOs can learn from, Kowsari says. “CIOs can adopt these principles to make data-driven decisions regarding technology investments and maximize the value delivered by IT projects.”

Keeney is seeing more organizations turning to trusted vendors to accelerate their digital transformation journeys. “This shift in dynamic is intriguing, as insurers increasingly rely on technology vendors for operational performance, system observability, and increased quality and speed of delivery,’’ she says. “They will spend more time understanding customer data, which should fuel the fast-tracking of the development of new insurance products and growth with a focus on personalization and increasing customer retention.”

CIOs often overlook the opportunity to cultivate vendor relationships, yet it’s something they should consider, Porter says. “It’s not just a purchase or transaction; it’s a partnership. When CIOs take the time to identify the right people within specific vendors and establish long-term relationships, it can profoundly impact maximizing your value and getting the most out of those solutions. It also ensures that when challenges arise, the vendor is there in the trenches, working to resolve them.”

CTO, Digital Transformation, IT Leadership, IT Strategy, Software Development