The Technologist’s Guide to the C-Suite

team-1238087-639x442In my previous article, “The Technology Executive and the Software Craftsman,” I described a new breed of software developer who cares deeply about the fitness and quality of their workmanship, namely, the software craftsman. I also described how technology executives can better leverage this new breed of developer by ensuring that they are included in a broader business dialog to prepare them to make better business decisions. In this article, I will explain the various roles and voices that sit around the executive leadership table in most businesses. Further, I will explain what these roles expect and listen for when describing solutions they desire or are presented with solutions respectively. I call the latter their “listening.”

Previously, I said that the keys to better collaboration are communication and trust. The aim of this article is to help the technologist (software craftsman and most other technologists alike) raise their awareness of the dynamics within the “C-Suite.” Only through better communication will the technologist understand his/her business partners’ needs and through demonstrating that understanding, engender trust. The end game is to prepare technologists to ask better questions when developing solutions, present their solutions more persuasively, and ultimately to provide the best solutions to their business partners. In my journey from software developer to technology executive, I learned most of what prepared me for leadership by understanding and listening to these voices wherever they appeared, whether within the business or in customer settings in front of those looking to procure our solutions. When I face off with my technical staff to discuss solutions, I usually revert to my old standby question, “What is the business problem we are trying to solve?” The goal of this article is to add texture to the understanding of business problems and to suggest ways to evangelize technology solutions effectively to your business partners.

Voices in the C-Suite

There are four primary voices within the C-Suite. Those are the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), the Chief Operations Officer (COO), the Chief Financial Officer (CFO), and the Chief Technology Officer (CTO). They are sometimes known by other names in different industry sectors or company types. For example, in privately held firms, the CEO role can also be known as the President with the COO role being referred to as Vice President of Operations but their respective voices and listening remain the same.

The CEO

As is commonly understood, the CEO sits at the head of the executive table and sets the tone and direction for the company. In most organizations, the CEO is strategically focused and is mostly concerned about setting strategy and aligning the various operations within the company to support that strategy. Components of that strategic vision can include growth within existing markets, breaking into new markets, finding novel sales channels for products and services, and expanding products and services to diversify the customer portfolio. In most cases, the end goal of aligning business with strategy is to increase top-line revenue, reduce expenses, and increase margins. The balancing act the CEO does between these is most often a function of the business sector and type of company. For example, US public companies usually manage to analyst’s expectations on a quarterly or annual basis while private companies can sometimes take a longer view since they are not at the effect of the stock market. Companies in the startup phase seeking to go public or get acquired are more often focused on generating revenue and growing the sales pipeline. Costs and margins are sometimes secondary since the acquisition price of a company is usually based on revenue or pipeline.

When a CEO is defining or evaluating a solution, they are usually listening for how the solution aligns with the strategy of the business. Common questions a technologist can ask a CEO include, “Where do you see the company being in 5 years?” and “What obstacles do you see to your guiding the company there?” These two questions will lead to richer and more detailed dialog.

The COO

The COO is figuratively at the right hand of the CEO. The COO’s job is to turn strategy into action by effectively leveraging the core activities of the business. In most instances, the COO heads the manufacturing and services arms of the business. In some instances, the COO owns the sales, marketing, and support activities as well. These will be discussed in the “Other Voices” section. The COO is supremely concerned about conducting business efficiently since efficiency translates directly to generating revenue while controlling expenses and maximizing margins. At the same time, the COO is concerned about continuously improving the operation to adapt and align it with strategy. So, most COO’s have a short-term efficiency goals and longer term improvement objectives. In some companies, software development effort falls under the COO especially if that development involves standardizing the production of products or services.

When a COO is defining or evaluating a solution, he/she are usually listening for how the solution makes the operation more efficient or aids continuous improvement objectives. For example, if your solution reduces the manual processes and the related errors, the COO pays attention because less error-prone processes mean the staff can focus on issues more critical to the business than fixing problems. Common questions a technologist can ask a COO include, “What do you think you can do to make your business run more smoothly?” and “Can you describe your objectives for process improvement or process re-engineering?” Again, these questions will serve as an opening to a deeper dialog.

The CFO

The CFO controls the purse strings of the company. Among the many concerns of the CFO, two are primary: Are revenue projections on target per company strategy and budget and are expenses being controlled responsibly per the budget. Most other concerns flow from balancing revenue with expense as the business ebbs and flows throughout the fiscal year. Based on these concerns, the CFO is the gatekeeper of most spending. For example, if hitting a margin target is key for the company then the CFO will attempt to tighten expense controls if revenues fall short. Expense spending is prioritized based upon business need. It is critical for technologists to make good business cases for their expenditures lest the CFO becomes the CF“No!”.

When a CFO is defining or evaluating a solution, they are usually in alignment with the COO but more from a financial perspective. They also tend to focus on return-on-investment for money spent. CFO’s also balance capital expenditures such as computing assets and operational expenses such as technical services, so it’s best to understand where the CFO stands in such purchases. Common questions a technologist can ask a CFO include, “What’s the primary focus of your efforts, revenue generation or expense saving and how do you balance those?” and “Are you looking to affect those in the short term or do you have a longer term view that is more important?”

The CTO

Since this article focuses on the technologist, the CTO is the probably the best understood by the target audience. The CTO’s job is to leverage technology effectively to support the business. This job can include client-facing software development, infrastructure management, internally-facing software development, and deployment and management of any of a broad spectrum of other technologies that power business. In the vast majority of businesses, the CTO acts in the service of the other facets of the business. As such, the CTO must be in close and constant communication with their executive peers to understand how best to deploy supporting technical resources. In companies pushing out the frontier of technology, the CTO is at the forefront of generating innovative solutions so their role can sometimes heavily overlap with those of the CEO and COO. The CTO usually creates and maintains a technology strategy and roadmap to support the prioritization and orderly deployment of technology. One of the key balancing acts done by the CTO is balancing what is needed to advance client facing strategy and what is needed to advance internally facing support. The question becomes one of what is critical to the core mission of the business and what is not. Increasingly, CTO’s are looking for external hosting support for non-mission-critical systems to focus internal technical resources on mission-critical systems. The mission of the system frequently gives rise to the internally versus externally hosted debate and where the “cloud” enters into the discussion.

When a CTO is defining or evaluating solutions, in addition to business fitness, he/she is concerned about how solutions align with technology strategy and mission-criticality. Common questions to ask a CTO include, “How would you expect the solution to align with your technology strategy?” and “Is the proposed solution critical to the core mission of the business or ancillary to that mission?”

Other Voices: Business Development and Customer Support

There are two additional roles and voices that are frequently at the executive table but can sometimes report up to those seated around the executive table. Those are the Business Development (BD) or Sales role and the Customer Support role. Both face off to customers but bring different and sometimes opposing perspectives to the table.

The BD role is concerned with selling products and services to the customer. As such they tend to be focused on the alignment of the features and benefits of products and services to the customer’s needs. I have seen both strategically focused and tactically focused BD organizations. The focus varies with the business climate faced by the company. BD is frequently the area of the business best aligned with the corporate strategy since they handle generating the revenue needed to realize that strategy. I mention this role in the article since forming an alliance between technologist and BD staff can be the key to understanding the corporate strategy in very practical terms. I urge you to seek out your BD peers and understand their motivations and pain points. It will pay dividends when defining or evangelizing solutions.

The Customer Support role brings a very different voice to the table. Most often, these are the people that have to live with technology solutions for the long term and benefit by their virtues and suffer from their vices. In short, the Customer Support voice is the best to identify product risks and where the most solution benefits can be gained. Where the BD role focuses on features and benefits to the customer, the Customer Support role focuses on making the solution work for the customer in very practical terms. As such the Customer Support staff will frequently be the most risk-focused since they are committed to customer satisfaction. Risks when realized often lead to unfulfilled expectations and unfulfilled expectations lead to unhappy customers. Understanding what it takes to support and satisfy customer needs usually results in key product and services differentiators that the technologist would be wise to consider when developing solutions.

Practical Applications

So now let’s explore putting the appreciation for the “voices” and “listenings” at the executive table to use. Among the jobs facing technologists, there are two that benefit the most from this understanding: Gathering requirements for solutions and evangelizing solutions to your customers.

When gathering requirements, I urge you to list the various voices I have discussed. Seek out representatives of each voice and have a conversation about their objectives for the solution under development. You need not necessarily seek out c-level executives to obtain these views since the staff under the executives are frequently aligned with their leader’s positions. Once you have amassed these views, attempt to prioritize the strength of the voices with the features you wish to build into the solution. You can then review your findings with the business representative to verify your understanding and seek correction. In doing so, you will not only arm yourself with better information needed to develop a better solution but you will demonstrate to your business partners that you understand and are in alignment with their needs. Demonstrating understanding is the key to engendering trust!

If you are in the position of evangelizing a developed solution to internal or external customers, I urge you to list the various voices I have discussed. Note alignment of features and benefits of the solution with the “listening” of each voice. From this, you can create a narrative designed to explain your solution to each “listening.” Here’s a tip: When you’re facing-off with your customers evangelizing your solution, ask them where they work in the business (Operations, Support, Finance, Sales, Strategy, etc.). Armed with their answers, you can explain the features and benefits of the solution in a way that aligns with their particular view of the world. I think you will find that you will build more persuasive arguments that help you more effectively communicate and build trust.

If any of the above resonates with you, I would like to hear about your experience trying it out!