Your Career Path to CIO

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Now more than ever, the role of chief information officer is in a state of flux. From corporations’ increasing reliance on information technology and storage to ever-changing government regulations on information management to the expanding global workforce, CIOs have become one of the highest-profile positions within corporations today.

Because of the CIO’s high-profile status (as well as the high-profile paycheck), many IT professionals at all levels hope to eventually move into this job role. But will simply a background in IT get you there? What does it take to go from the server room to the boardroom?

The CIO’s Evolving Role
One of the benchmarks of the CIO’s increasing importance is the chain of command. According to the 2007 CIO magazine “State of the CIO” survey, 41 percent of CIOs report directly to the CEO, while only 24 percent report to the CFO. These findings show a reversal of previous surveys, which showed an increase in CIOs reporting to CFOs.

Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of IT search firm Robert Half Technology, said corporations want the IT department to be more than the hub of technology — it’s now a strategic part of the company’s goals, as well.

“The role of the CIO is changing as technology becomes more and more critical to business,” Lee said. “It’s just speeding up and just getting faster. If you’re a CIO, think about what you have to know today versus what you had to know 15 years ago.”

Part of that increasing knowledge base includes learning about business and finance. The IT department was once filed under the “expenditure” side of business, but it’s now seen as a profit center.

“CIOs have become a business driver,” Lee said. “The role of CIO now is not just, ‘What technology do we need to run our business?’ It’s now, ‘What technology do we need to increase our profits and productivity and reduce costs?’ I think CIOs sit at the planning table a lot more than they used to.”

In fact, according to the “State of the CIO” survey, 68 percent of CIOs sit on their organization’s business executive management committee.

In addition to the dizzying pace of change in technology and an increase in business knowledge, CIOs also have had to learn about proper information-management techniques in accordance with government regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley.

“They’ve gone from compliance officer to proactively knowing what’s going to happen in technology and regulations,” Lee said. “The role has also changed because of how global the economy is and how global the world is.”

Robert Rosen is the chief information officer at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases at the National Institute of Health (NIH), which is within the Department of Health and Human Services.

In addition, he is a member and served as the president of SHARE, the oldest user group in the world, which collaborates with IBM to educate people who are new to technology.

Rosen said that, as IT departments grow, CIOs also will have to start looking at other business issues such as overhead costs.

“I think another thing that’s going to reach out and bite a whole lot of people is power,” Rosen said. “If you look at the electric bill at NIH, a whole lot of that is IT. Electric bills in companies are getting sufficiently large that they’re landing on the desks of the CEO and CFO, and they’re going to say, ‘Who’s using all this electricity?’ Well, who’s No. 1 on the list? They’re going to go to the CIO and say, ‘Cut your electricity usage by 20 percent.’ But at the same time, IT will need more MIPS (million instructions per second). (CIOs) are going to have to start figuring out how to do that.”

In addition to logistical concerns, CIOs also need to adapt to a changing global marketplace, Rosen said.

“There are lots of other issues in technology, like SOA (service-oriented architecture), security, changes in networking and so forth, but you should have staff people dealing with that,” he said. “CIOs need to start thinking about these more global issues now because the answers are not going to be easy.”

The Path to the C-Suite
Rosen got into the field through technology. He began by getting a degree in electrical engineering and then working in an Army laboratory, analyzing circuitry. Eventually, he moved over to the computer center, offering support for the labs’ tools.

“Then I got sucked into the big abyss of systems programming, which, back then, was one of the great mysteries of the world,” Rosen said. “Then I ended up in a laboratory again, supporting computer-aided manufacturing. I kept moving up and up until, eventually, I became the director of information management. Then this CIO job opened up at NIH, and I applied for it and was selected.”

Although Rosen’s path took many turns, his roots in technology mirror most CIOs. According to the “State of the CIO” survey, 70 percent of CIOs list IT as their primary area of experience prior to their current position. Once in the role, however, CIOs don’t view technical skills as the most critical to their jobs.

Instead, the same skill continues to dominate the list of most critical skills for CIOs: the ability to communicate effectively. Strategic thinking/planning and the ability to lead and motivate staff also topped the list of critical skills, which all point to the CIO’s increasing position as a business leader.

“CIOs have been able to pair technical know-how with good business skills,” Lee said. “They’re not just technologists.”

Rosen agrees, adding that CIOs now help companies increase the bottom line.

“You really need to have business skills and understand what’s really important in the business,” Rosen said. “People are not looking at IT now as a black hole, as a place behind the walls where people sit in white coats. They’re asking IT, ‘What are you doing to help the company’s bottom line? What are you contributing? You’re not just a service organization.’ You have to have that viewpoint and understand it. It’s no longer pure technology. You need to have this broader view of how your IT organization helps further the organization. You also need to know how to explain that to people — you can be doing it, but if no one knows you’re doing it, then you’re losing the battle.”

Lee said CIO hopefuls should take a proactive approach to eventually move into the role. For example, she suggests IT professionals try to get as much project management experience as possible. In addition, they should take courses in areas such as process management and business processes.

“They might even consider going back and earning an advanced degree,” Lee said. “They might want to pursue different certifications, as well.”

Lee cautions, however, that simply earning more credentials or increasing business acumen won’t automatically lead to a job as a CIO.

“If you want to be a CIO, you have to sit down and say, ‘What do I need to get there?’” Lee said. “Although most CIOs started out in technology, it didn’t just happen. Everyone needs to sit down and determine where they need to go. People’s career paths may change, attitudes may change. They have to make some type of decisions of what they want to do.”

Rosen also suggested that IT professionals need to be proactive in their path to CIO.

“One of the key things is that you don’t just progress automatically,” Rosen said. “You have to bring something to the table so that people notice you and say, ‘Let’s move him up.’ As I started out, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be the best techie there is because that’s the key to going forward.’ And yes, that was a key to going forward to a point. But one of the things I learned in SHARE was that you can be the greatest techie in the world, but you’re going to plateau in a very early phase in your career. You don’t exist in isolation — you have to be abl

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