The chief information officer (CIO) is a senior management job that first appeared in the late 1980s. It combines information technology know-how with all-round business skills.

Ideally a CIO can read a circuit diagram, debug programming code, navigate corporate accounts and understand the thrust of a marketing plan. Being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and stop a locomotive in its tracks don’t appear in any job description I’ve seen but they’d help.

CIO Magazine offers this mission statement prepared by the Gartner Group:

To provide technology vision and leadership for developing and implementing IT initiatives that create and maintain leadership for the enterprise in a constantly changing and intensely competitive marketplace.

It’s not a bad stab at defining CIO, but the words could apply to a kid hacking Linux out the back of an ice cream parlour.

Gartner’s statement could apply to anyone working in information technology with a smidgen of ambition. And  most enterprises regard their marketplace as constantly changing or intensely competitive.

Leadership, vision

I’m impressed Gartner managed to squeeze in leadership and vision. To me these are the important features distinguishing a good CIO from the dross. Leadership and vision is not about being the first company to sign up to a new initiative being pushed by one of the big technology vendors. It means standing up to snake oil merchants.

Likewise, CIO leadership and vision isn’t about blowing the budget on expensive new toys. Though some technology vendors use the words to imply exactly that. In their view visionaries spend money on their products regardless of whether they are proven or not.

And leadership most definitely is not about ploughing into heroic IT. The era of huge, unworkable mega-projects came to an end about the time the first CIOs appeared.

Companies recognise information technology is a tool to carry out the business plan. It is part of the CIO’s job to harness IT and related knowledge resources towards the key business goals and are not an end in themselves.

Pinnacle of knowledge work

A CIO position in a large corporation is one of the pinnacles of knowledge-workerdom. It’s not necessarily the top knowledge worker job even for those knowledge workers with an IT background. Some CIOs have progressed to the CEO position, but the specialist nature of CIO work means such a move is unusual even in companies where the strategic application of technology and information tools lies at the core of the business.

While some CIOs climbed to their position from technical careers in programming, systems analysis or even support, you don’t need to have an intensely technical background to reach this exalted position. That’s because in many case a CIO is more involved in applying technology to help an organisation reach is business goals than managing the technology on a day-to-day basis. That is why some people stepping into the CIO position and similar senior IT-related roles come from a user or application background.

Management education

If you do have a mainly technical background and you hope to step into a CIO role at some point, you’d be better off looking at expanding your management education and not your technical skills. Obviously an MBA will help more than Microsoft certification or any further IT qualifications. You’ll need a strong business orientation and in-depth experience working on commercial applications in a key industry.

It’s possible you arrived in IT management with a first degree in a non-technical or non-vocational subject. Some recruiters might recommend you to top up your technical education before shooting for an MBA as a stepping-stone to the CIO role. In my opinion, it makes more sense to gather technical expertise on the job and concentrate your formal education resources on that MBA. Having some major project success on your CV is more likely to impress potential employers than any formal IT qualification. Remember, CIO is more about strategy than hands on computing.

Not all top-ranked corporate IT professionals are CIOs. Directors of IT usually implement strategies on behalf of senior management. A Director of IT might give advice at the senior management level, but the job is primarily technical. On the other hand, the CIO role is more strategic. In some organisations the Director of IT reports to the CIO.

The rewards for successful CIOs can be enormous. Of course it does depend on the size of an organisation and the size of the job. There are CIOs working in Australia with salaries well in excess of A$500,000. Usually CIO positions involve more modest salary packages along with generous performance bonuses – possibly in the form of stock options.

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