The Path to CIO: Vertical, Horizontal or Somewhere in Between?

Like becoming a professional athlete or an Oscar-winning actor, earning the title of CIO is the goal for many young, ambitious hopefuls in the IT field. It’s a glamorous and prestigious role, requiring top-notch technical skills and leadership prowess.

But in an age of fluid careers and competitive markets, the route to the executive suite can be hard to navigate, especially for recent grads and young IT professionals. The question on many minds is: Should I specialize within one vertical industry or develop technical skills that translate horizontally across areas of business?

“If you’d asked this question 10 years ago, you would’ve found that the deep technical skills were what people were focused on,” said Mary Price, a leader of the CIO recruiting practice at Russell Reynolds Associates in New York. “[But] the world has changed significantly, especially recently, and it’s moving towards a business focus. So you still have to have the underpinnings of technology, but CIOs are becoming members of the table at the senior-most level.”

Although this might not impact your first job search, it’s important to think about as you’re looking to progress in your career. That is, as an IT professional today, you’ll increasingly be expected to straddle two areas of knowledge at once.

This shift is partly due to the gradual integration of technology into everyday life. Think about it: When you wake up in the morning, you might check your e-mail, send a few instant messages, call a friend on your handheld PDA, Google the name of your favorite band and listen to a podcast on your iPod all before your first class. Technology is a part of your daily existence, not merely a course of study.

It’s only natural that this integration affects the business world as well. Technology has become a competitive differentiator of companies, rather than the reactionary support outlet it was before. And in many cases, technology is inextricably linked to an industry’s growth and development, making it impossible for an IT professional, especially a CIO, to have a transferable set of tech skills.

But this wasn’t always the case. In the earlier days of IT, understanding the business forces at work within a particular industry wasn’t as crucial for ambitious IT pros because the technology was new and therefore not as central to the success of the company, said John McCreight, managing partner of the CIO Group, a consulting partnership of senior IT executives.

“Back in those days, [businesses] were so glad to have someone that understood IT, it didn’t matter very much whether you understood the industry,” he said, adding that he was surprised by the quality of jobs he could get when he first started out almost 40 years ago with only his freshly printed diploma and nominal IT expertise.

“[Today], technology is woven into the essence of the company: how it works, what products and services it offers,” he said. “How you use IT in financial services is different from how you use IT [elsewhere]. In order to play a strategic role in a company where [you’re] working, [you’ve] got to understand the technology in the context of that industry.”

That said, learning the ins and outs of one particular field — let alone multiple fields — as well as maintaining a strong set of technical skills is a tough assignment for even the sharpest IT student. But you can map your career progression more easily by categorizing all business industries into one of two areas: service and product.

A study conducted by Russell, Reynolds and Cambria Consulting found that 90 percent of CIOs spend their careers in one or the other — that is, either in service-based industries, such as transportation or telecommunications, or in product-based industries, such as manufacturing or pharmaceuticals.

So if you were employed as an IT professional at a cable conglomerate and are considering a new job at a financial services company, the move shouldn’t be too tricky because you’ve already had to understand the forces impacting technology in a service-based environment.

“It’s like picking up a new language: You can learn rather quickly if you’re inclined to learn [and if you have] a decent coach in the company,” McCreight said. “The world of technology’s going to be attract[ing] people with an insatiable appetite for learning.”

– Agatha Gilmore, agilmore@certmag.com

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