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The technology skills that got you here won't get you there. If you have your eyes on a CIO role, Dennis Hodges gives his options for CIO finishing school.

CIO-Career-Plan

Nearly twelve years ago, there was a notoriously controversial comment made that “IT doesn’t matter.” Since  Nicholas Carr's article first appeared, technology has played an increasing role in business - particularly in the manufacturing space I am in.

However, what about us as technologists today? Does our technology background matter? More importantly, did the skillset that brought us to technology management prepare us for stepping into the corner office for IT?

In my opinion, the answer is No.

Moving Up in IT

I completed a Master’s degree in Computer Science and an MBA. In the fifteen years that followed, I worked through a number of technical and business roles, including three years as Financial Controller in Korea, and reached a position reporting to the CIO. This particular CIO was new to the role – coming from the business with no previous IT experience. His first comment to me regarding career development was that “to move up in IT, you need to move out of IT”.

His comment got me thinking – “Why had they brought him into this role with no experience in IT?” My conclusion was that the company had struggled through the previous decade with technical CIOs who could not speak coherently to and with the business. My boss's predecessors did not bring any value to the table from the business side and did not understand the fundamentals of running IT as a business.

For the past seven years, I have held the CIO position at a global manufacturer. Did my early business experience help me get the job? I firmly believe that I would not have been the finalist in that national search without it. When I speak to the CFO at our company, he often says that he knows I understand him since I was a Controller before.

Enough about my history. What does all of this mean to you? If you’re like me, you work at a company with a career plan for most of the core functions – whether that’s engineering, manufacturing, or financial services. However, there’s probably not a career plan for you to follow to become CIO. So, you need to build your own plan.

CIO Finishing School

To quote the Hodges theory of leadership potential – “the deeper your technical skills, the more you need business exposure”. Now, that doesn’t mean that your raw talent isn’t there - it’s just the perception of the outside world.

If you have a Computer Science or other technical degree and want to become a CIO, do not pursue another technical degree. You have all the technical background you need. You need to go to finishing school. Consider an MBA. Take some basic accounting and finance classes. (And, yes, there is a difference between the two).

Learn to budget. Not just well enough to make sure you are never short of funds, but to be really close. Remember, any money you leave on the table at the end of the year is money the company could have used elsewhere (or not borrowed). Understand the business/financial side of IT. Where does the function fit in the larger budget? What is your IT spend as a percentage of revenue? Learn to read an Income Statement and Cash Flow Statement and be able to speak to the major components.

While you are doing that, start looking at the various business “image” skills you need. The first is lingo. You have to be able to speak the language of business. Drop the technical acronyms and analogies – they just alienate the rest of the world. This is something you really must do deliberately.

Business Focused – Technology Enabled

To really excel, memorize this – “business focused, technology enabled”. That means that you are working with the various functions of the company to understand their real needs and then to bring technology that will improve – or hopefully – revolutionize that function. Again, the more technical you are the more you need to throttle yourself as you discuss options. Let the other person finish their requirement definition before you give a solution.

You should now be ready to start working closely with your business peers. Look at the group and find the area that seems to need the most help. Use your problem solving skills to address real business issues. Focus on the problem and process first, not solutions – even non-technical people tend to jump to new software as the solution for a problem that hasn’t been fully identified yet. Stay with it until it is solved – showing resolve and determination. The last thing the business needs is an IT department that backs away when things get tough. Let the business function talk about successful projects – remember, all projects are business projects; technology is just an enabler.

Much of what I have mentioned is really perception. However, it has been invaluable to me in the road to becoming (and remaining as) a CIO.

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