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Cloud Computing: Implementation, Management, and Security
The Green and Virtual Data Center
Best Practices in Business Technology Management
The Effective CIO: How to Achieve Outstanding Success through Strategic Alignment, Financial Management, and IT Governance
Enterprise Architecture A to Z: Frameworks, Business Process Modeling, SOA, and Infrastructure Technology

CIO Core Skills and Career Development

By Eric Brown and William Yarberry, Jr.

Chief information officers (CIOs) vary in appearance, age, gender, educational background, hobbies, and personality. There is no average CIO. However, successful CIOs have a core set of skills that allow them to succeed in an age of complexity and constantly shifting business requirements. In the same way that a "new" dictionary cannot have all new words (it would be practically useless), we do not present in The Effective CIO a large number of absolutely new ideas and concepts.

Our intent is to outline the skills, challenges, and important management and information technology subject matter to help you with your own career and long-term strategic planning. Every successful person acknowledges the need for discipline - going beyond the "order-taking" mindset and deliberately working toward increased personal productivity, satisfaction, and contribution to the business. The following sections are a high-level road map to becoming an effective CIO.

CIO Roles: A Sampler© 2009 by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

In the 1960s, information technology (IT) was a back-room, low-prestige operation. The "electronic data processing (EDP) manager" would typically not be on the same social, educational, or organizational level as, for example, the vice president (VP) of finance or the head of manufacturing. Roll forward to the 21st century and the CIO is now blessed with acceptance into the "senior leadership club" but challenged by responsibilities never imagined in the past. Following are some of the roles the new CIO is expected to play:

  • Providing technical strategy that seamlessly segues into the corporate business strategy - even in the absence of a well-defined business plan and implementation road map. As Sun Tzu said, "Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat."
  • Maintaining a computing and communications (people, data, phone, cell, etc.) infrastructure that is always available.
  • Having knowledge and foresight enough to develop an architecture that, after implementation, enables the business to provide many new services, reduce costs, and streamline operations with existing infrastructure and systems. In other words, you can avoid the scenario where the chief executive officer (CEO) says "I want to do X" and your response is usually "Great, we'll need to install Y to make it happen and it will cost $Z."
  • that the IT portfolio fund is utilized and managed properly. Dollars go toward high-value return-on-investment (ROI) projects that support the business strategy.
  • Hiring the right people, having a tier one Rolodex, chock-a-block full of trusted contractors, and retaining high performers.
  • Developing and maintaining a spot-on IT governance structure that does all the things governance is supposed to do - ensure alignment with business goals, ensure proper controls (e.g., change management, security), provide communications up and down the management chain, monitor progress, and manage risk.
  • Proactively develop strategic project ideas and suggestions for the business - "the art of the possible." This is the opposite of the order-taker perspective of your muscle car era predecessors.
  • Working to seamlessly integrate acquisitions into the IT/business fabric of the organization, or inversely, help to divest subsidiaries without undue disruption.
  • Keeping the lid on expenses. Not only do the high-profile new projects need to be managed, but the day-to-day operating expenses and budget must be scrutinized as well.
  • Translate, communicate, and educate. To paraphrase former President George H.W. Bush, you need to promote the "vision thing." Short-term thinking is the enemy of effective IT, and the CIO must constantly translate (from "geek speak" to English) and communicate (two way) with the business - here is the plan, here are the benefits, and here is what will happen if we take a short-term, expedient approach. Assume, for example, that your users have always used bicycles to get to work. You suggest an automobile. "Good idea," they say, "but we're used to handlebars and this steering wheel feels awkward; let's install handlebars in the automobiles." At that point, you and the user's management need to communicate so that the message to the users is clear - we are going to have a little short-term pain for some long-term benefit.

No One Is Planning Your Career © 2009 by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

There has never been a recorded instance of an overgrown backyard spontaneously rearranging itself into a neat English garden. Careers work the same way. Here is the etiology of promotions: Some event happens - perhaps someone leaves, a new business line is started, a new office is opened up in a foreign country, or some group is consolidated. The decision maker looks around and thinks "who can do this job? Who has shown initiative, energy, gets along with people, is not afraid of different cultures and has the ability to learn?" X, Y, and Z are considered, and Y gets the job. In essence, Y had the job beforehand but neither Y nor the decision maker knew it - the event simply caused Y's accumulated skill set and achievements to be recognized. The point is that advancement is almost completely a function of steady accomplishments, skill, and relationship building, all of which need to be consciously planned. Again, we quote Sun Tzu: "Can you imagine what I would do if I could do all I can?"

The big career jumps may sometimes happen by chance, but they are usually just recognition, like medals pinned on a hero after the battle is over. Following are some suggestions for planning and enhancing your career:

  • Get educated. If your intellectual interests are in the realm of computer science or systems, an IT degree may be appropriate. But we emphatically suggest that majoring in IT is unnecessary. Anthropology, geology, math, business, political science, and even theater majors have become CIOs. As you move up the ladder, general knowledge becomes increasingly important. Particularly in larger organizations, narrowly educated managers may bump up against a glass ceiling. Unfair as it may be, there is a "club," and those who know only bits-and-bytes may never be admitted, as those skills, in the bigger scheme of things, are as useful as a chocolate teapot.
  • Diversify your business experience. Take every opportunity to work on projects outside IT so you can get exposure to the core business. Charity and community service projects, where you meet executives from the rest of the organization and other companies, can also be helpful.
  • Learn the business. We will say this dozens of times. If, for example, you are in publishing, you need to understand the terms "back list," "galley proofs," and "over the transom," even if the IT group never gets involved in that part of the business.
  • Learn IT finance. If you are a CTO (chief technology officer) and want to be a CIO, here is one piece of advice that may push you over the top - learn budgets, basic accounting, and a few specialized concepts such as SOP-98. If you can stand up in a senior management meeting and say, "If this project is implemented it will improve earnings by 2 cents per share, our operating margin will increase by 200 basis points, and our operating costs will reduce by $10 million annually," then you have gone a long way toward membership in the club. Money is the lingua franca of the boardroom.
  • Show enthusiasm for analytics. Whether you or your staff does business analytics or you merely provide the tools, showing support for this approach shows you "get it." Businesses are becoming almost mind-numbingly complex, with global supply chains, constant product innovations, and changing customer demands. Analytics identifies critical bottlenecks, inefficiencies, customer preferences, and other vital information.
  • Publish your performance. IT usually gets projects funded from the business units (corporate being one of those business units). To show you are a responsible steward of your organization resources, use dashboards, benchmarks, six sigma presentations, and other governance-type reporting tools. This accomplishes two things: it tells management how their money is being spent, and it shows you have a grasp of your own department and how it performs.
  • Be proactive. Suppose you are provided a budget of $25 million. You divvy up the pie into operations, ongoing software/hardware maintenance, new internal projects, personnel costs, and a few other categories. Then you start hammering away at each line item on the budget, hoping to stay within the $25 million by the end of the year. That is the way to perhaps keep your job, not the way to advance. You have to be - in a polite way - in the face of the business executives, coming up with ideas on how IT can help with marketing, operational efficiencies, process changes, development of new products, and so forth. Sometimes it does not even need to be anything related to IT. Michael Hites, CIO for New Mexico State University, got frustrated with the university's lack of strategic planning and bugged people for several years to fix it. In the end he got the magic "and" added to his title. He is now Vice President of Planning and Technology.
  • Limit the time you spend on mechanical, repetitive activities. Those need to be handled by your direct reports or lower in your organizational structure. Trust whom you hire and whom your hires hire. You need time to focus on higher-order activities.
  • Do not mistreat vendors and consultants. You may not have time to talk to them, but do not take advantage of their subordinate position. There are many hidden relationships within cities, industries, and associations. Unfairness is like a hidden iceberg just waiting for its career-titanic to come along. You never know when you may need that one person whom you previously had taken advantage of and who will no longer work with you or your organization. Think of how many people you may have in your Linkedin community and how many of your contacts have contacts in their Linkedin community. One bad reference or working relationship will permeate the Internet faster than a Bugatti Veyron EB 16.4.
  • Read and comprehend constantly. Find good Web sites and follow current trends. Read books of all kinds. If your commute is long, consider listening to recorded books. Communication skills (non-geek speak) are built on words and concepts, so consider reading as part of your job.
  • Be aware of the unwritten rules and foreign culture differences. There are lots of them. People sometimes say one thing but mean something else. The nuances of body language, clothes, stride, voice tone, and even pupil dilation hold clues to the hidden social fabric. In some cultures, nodding yes may mean they understand what you said but that does not mean they agree with what you said. When do you shake a hand and when do you not? Other nuances of behavior include when and how to sip your tea and how to hold the cup, in what order do you place the business cards you receive on the table in front of you, how do you hand a business card over to another executive, and why do you never ever put your business cards in your front shirt pocket?

    What is most important to your career is simply the awareness that a hidden world of innuendo exists in the organization and that it can help or hinder your career dramatically (and sometimes unfairly). Following are just a few of the "unposted" rules:

    • Stay positive. Even if it is not directed at them, your management peers will be uncomfortable if your world perspective is consistently negative.
    • Dress as a member of the upper class. You should not overdress for your organization, but dressing cheaply suggests a "paper bag lunch" mentality. You want to look like what you are striving to become. Copy the next level up.
    • Be careful with e-mail. Studies have shown that the higher up on the chain of command, the less text is included in the e-mails of the sender. This does not mean rudeness but merely that complexity at the management level is best handled via face-to-face conversation. And, of course, avoid negative emotion, even if you are ready to send someone a fan, because you are sure he or she will soon be in hell.
    • Respect the time of senior people. One of the interesting traits of the most seasoned executives is that they have the ability to project an image of calm and availability when in fact they are nearly always pressed for time. Do not be fooled. Chit chat works for about 10 seconds; get on with your business and then leave. Occasionally senior executives are not skilled at closing a conversation, so you need to gracefully do it for them.
    • Do not go into critical meetings without an agenda.
    • Strenuously avoid topics that cause dissention between people - politics, religion, pros and cons of various groups, sex, and even history if it brings up sensitive subjects. A corporation or nonprofit organization is a place where people come together to earn a living and work; it is not a platform for zealotry.
    • Positive extremes will help your career. For whatever reason, we are attracted to and retain memories of events, places, and people out of the ordinary. For example, consider the following unusual life events or personal characteristics. Your "interesting personality profile" is above average if you have:
      • Gone night diving in a cave and only surfaced when your flashlight is on the blink, your glow sticks have run out, and your air pressure gauge is below 200 psi
      • Mastered four languages, including medieval Occitan
      • Written to Thorstein Veblen as "Uncle Thor"
      • Been bitten by a shark and rescued by the Coast Guard
    • Help everyone you can. All the world's religions recognize the core principle that "Giving = Power." In one sense, it is a selection process; those who can give to others have extra power (money, time, or merely energy). Practically, it means you are constantly building a pool of people who are rooting for you. Success comes from the support of superiors, peers, and subordinates.

Strategic Planning© 2009 by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

Think. Talk. Plan. Now you are ready to write. Unfortunately, some CIOs believe that 50 cent words, Power Point slides with heavy graphics, and a ream of bond paper are de rigueur. In fact, simple is best. Following are some guidelines:

  • Start with business needs. Consider sales projections, markets, changing technology, cost factors, and other service and production factors.
  • Develop a high-level timeline.
  • Show how IT can influence and support business plans.
  • Break down the plan into sections that relate to the enterprise, specific business units, and anything IT specific, such as infrastructure.
  • Create an executive summary in short direct sentences: "By first quarter 2002, we will provide a portal for online ordering and configuration of small- to medium-sized metal buildings."
  • Lay out any major technologies or business events that must occur in order for the strategy to be accomplished: "In order to complete our supply chain management system implementation, all business units must be on a common enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform."
  • Include a plan B and plan C if funding or other uncertainties may affect the outcome.
  • Provide a framework for tracking progress.
  • Provide a framework for change management and communication.

Many CIOs avoid a written strategic plan because of the perception that it must be a polished presentation with stratospheric abstractions straight from a high-power consulting firm. "Heck, we just make widgets over here in Midland. I'd be laughed at if I came in with something fancy like this." Here is a dirty little secret: You are not in high school anymore! No English teacher is going to take a red pen and mark it up. The strategic plan needs be no more complex than is needed to do the job.

Along similar lines, Stephanie Overby, in a CIO magazine article, debunks four strategic planning myths:

  • Technology changes so fast that planning is no longer necessary. Planning is only partially connected to specific technologies. You are trying to execute business goals; if it turns out that your current system will not do the job, maybe some software-as-a-service package will suffice. What matters is that the business is properly supported.
  • A strategic plan should be good for 5 years. This might have been true in 1960 but is ridiculous now. You should do a plan because planning gives your current efforts direction. Sticking to a 5-year plan sounds suspiciously like the central committee planning done in former communist countries.
  • Small budgets do not need a strategic plan. In this case, size really does not matter. Planning scales both up and down. You still need to plan the outcome, even if smaller dollars are involved.
  • You cannot have a strategic plan in IT because your business does not have a strategic plan. The business plan might exist in the CEO's head or in two or three other executives' heads. You can articulate an IT strategy based on conversations and shrewd guesses. You may be able to help the organization by demonstrating how it is done.

Technical Expertise© 2009 by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

We will repeat many times in this book the need for business expertise. But you still need to maintain basic technical knowledge. Here is a list of mainline technologies that should be part of your CIO repertoire, at least at a high level:

  • Web development technologies
  • Security
  • Software as a service (SaaS)
  • Cloud computing
  • Business analytics tools
  • Wireless technologies
  • Mobile devices and their options
  • Remote and mobile user support alternatives
  • Virtualization
  • Communications, including IPv6
  • Project management tools
  • Knowledge sharing tools

The Generations

Regardless of your age, you will be managing and interacting with a variety of generations. The exact labels for the generations are not quite set in stone, but they are roughly as follows:

  • Matures: born 1925-1945
  • Baby Boomers: born 1946-1964
  • Generation X: born 1965-1979
  • Generation Y (also called Millennials and Echo Boomers): born 1980-2000
  • Generation Z (also called Trophy Kids): born 2000 to date

According to futurist James Canton, by 2015 there may be 14 million more jobs than workers to fill them in the United States alone. The implications of this are clear - all managers, including CIOs, will be chasing a scarce resource. Because of the shortage, there will be a greater appetite for hiring and retaining older workers within the next few years. At the same time, having many generations coexisting in the same organization will present a human relations challenge.

Some of the challenges include the following:

  • Huge differences in upbringing. Later generations were raised (at least those from middle class and above families) with much more parental involvement. Some may be accustomed to considerably more praise than received by, for example, baby boomers in their childhood.
  • Technology preferences. Telephone, instant messaging (IM), Facebook, e-mail, text messaging - all different forms of communications with marked differences in popularity between groups.
  • Resistance to perceived arbitrary rules. For example, the idea of staying late just to impress the boss is dying. Generation Y through the Millenials think it is a stupid idea and will resist blatant, non-work-related "organization man" cultural norms.
  • Motivational techniques vary between the generations. Some need praise; some need intense direction and management. Some want to be part of an organization that is green and socially responsible.

These differences are substantial and relevant. In general, the closer an employee is to the millennial age bracket, the more management effort and sensitivity to their perspective is required. It may be that social responsibility is the attribute that keeps a talented developer from jumping ship, rather than the salary. Mentoring will become an increasingly important part of your job - after all, you cannot move up the ladder yourself unless you have someone competent in line to take over.

What Affects Compensation?© 2009 by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

Richard Florida's book, Who's Your City? How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life, discusses the importance of location to just about everything in life. Pundits predicted a few years back that global telecommunications would make where you live irrelevant. The reality is just the opposite. Certain deep sociological and economic processes are building up some areas of the world dramatically faster than others. Using a "light map" - a satellite reading of the light intensity of the world superimposed on a map - shows that certain megaregions are responsible for most of the economic growth of the world. When a region becomes known for something, say aerospace engineering, then it attracts talent from other locations. That talent generates wealth and attracts further talent. The city or region spirals upward and even high real estate prices will not dampen the growth. The creative class likes to be with the creative class. So what does this have to do with compensation? Several factors apply:

  • You personally will earn more in a megaregion, such as Boston-New York-Washington or San Antonio-Austin-Dallas-Houston. Not only now but for the rest of your career. Money is not everything, but you should be conscious of what you are giving up if you choose to live in less-populated areas.
  • On the flip side, you may not be able to offer recruits as much compensation if your organization is located in a medium- or small-sized town. Some ways to compensate include:
    • Recruit from a local college.
    • Stress that the new hire will have more variety of work than would be the case for a much larger organization.
    • Ensure that your shop's technology is not too far behind - small town and old technology is a death knell for your recruiting efforts.
    • Be more explicit in career path opportunities.
    • Move staff around to give them a chance to learn new technologies.
  • Education matters. A November 2007 Computerworld analysis of a bachelor's degree versus a master's degree showed a substantial increase across a number of IT jobs for those with the advanced degree.6 For example, a computer hardware engineer with 5 to 9 years experience earns $84,200 with a bachelor's degree and $95,300 with a master's degree (13% increase). A database administrator shows a 15% increase for a master's degree. Presumably such numbers apply to CIOs as well. In addition, an MBA demonstrates a commitment to business strategic knowledge which most certainly garners the approval of management.
  • Your business orientation will greatly influence your compensation. If you are perceived as a techie and not interested in the "mundane" problems of the organization, your compensation will be capped. It is good to show enthusiasm for technology but always sandwich that fervor in a bun of practical business value.
  • The profit margins of your firm will dictate the ability of your superior (CEO or perhaps the chief financial officer [CFO]) to adjust your bonus and salary. Some firms just do not have the margins to be generous. Investigate before signing on.
  • Your likeability affects your income. How good it would be if compensation were truly objective and based solely on organizational contribution. As one of Sir Thomas Moore's servants said in the movie A Man for All Seasons, "I wish rainwater was beer, but it ain't." It is really not as hard as one would think to increase likeability. Do you greet international business associates in their own language? Do you talk about family or tell yet another late night drinking story? Are you pleasant to subordinates, especially administrative assistants?

    Of course, there are CIOs with high incomes who ignore these guidelines. They are exceptions. The great majority of businesspeople improve their careers and compensation by respectful and considerate behavior. In his popular Harvard Business Review article "Harnessing the Science of Persuasion," Robert B. Cialdini, Regents' Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, notes the following:

    Managers can use similarities to create bonds with a recent hire, the head of another department, or even a new boss. Informal conversations during the workday create an ideal opportunity to discover at least one common area of enjoyment, be it a hobby, a college basketball team, or reruns of Seinfeld. The important thing is to establish the bond early because it creates a presumption of goodwill and trustworthiness in every subsequent encounter. It's much easier to build support for a new project when the people you're trying to persuade are already inclined in your favor.

  • Never forget Tom Sawyer. Tom was pretty good at generating enthusiasm for whitewashing fence boards. It is hard to duplicate his success, but your success will depend in part on maintaining a stable infrastructure and completing projects on time. Enthusiasm is infectious and ultimately affects compensation by improving your department's execution of the plan. Catch a junior developer doing something right; get one of your managers to find some code that he has documented well. Send the developer an e-mail - "Good documentation, Fred. Keep it up." You have just gotten 10% more work out of the guy for the next 6 months.

There are some indirect factors that affect compensation as well. Network strength is probably the most important and includes not only your direct associates but the associates of your associates. Oddly enough, the value of your network, in terms of obtaining promising career opportunities, depends more on second- and third-tier relationships than on primary relationships. These second- and third-tier segments of your personal network, called "weak ties" because they are friend-of-a-friend, provide a sufficiently different contact environment to provide real benefit.

In contrast, your immediate friends probably run in the same circles, both physically and socially, as you. So you and they are aware of the same opportunities. Of course, from a mathematical perspective, secondary and tertiary contacts are proportional to your primary population, so it makes sense to keep up your network at all times. One of the most significant career errors CIOs can make is to drop contacts when the current job feels secure and then try to quickly ramp them up ("remember me") if it is time to move on. Networks can include former peers, subordinates, bosses, and association contacts.

CIO Viruses© 2009 by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

There are all sorts of viruses. Some are mental constructs that damage the host's career. Three of the most insidious are the following:

  • Information cocooning. The CIO hides out in his or her office and communicates primarily electronically. He or she cuts him- or herself off from information other than what he or she wants to hear. He or she has noise cancellation headphones on when the honking bus is headed his or her way.
  • Technology isolation. Building and maintaining systems that are proprietary and quirky, not able to be integrated into any new hardware or software. The implications are horrendous: staff has to be maintained who will work on technology that becomes increasingly irrelevant to the rest of the world. Business options are limited, change becomes difficult, and, of course, vendor support begins to slip.
  • Zealotry temptations. Highly technical people, particularly those new to the workforce, tend to become enthused with a "religion" of technology. They may love Microsoft and distrust open source or vice versa. Maybe MySQL is perceived as the preferred tool over some other database. The CIO should steer clear of emotional approaches to technology. Decisions should be made based on standardized architecture, which itself changes based on business needs.

The Magic "AND"© 2009 by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

What is so great about the "AND" word? It is your ticket to a more interesting and challenging job. If you can be CIO and "X," then your job just got expanded, possibly a lot. For example, David Finn at Texas Children's Hospital has the title "VP and CIO/Privacy and Information Security Officer." As we mentioned earlier, Michael Hites, CIO for New Mexico State University, is Vice President of Planning and Technology. Proactive CIOs can create many opportunities for themselves, far beyond the traditional IT management role. Examples of additional roles include VP or executive vice president (EVP) for the following:

  • Business process
  • Enterprise risk
  • Business development (new product lines, acquisitions, etc.)
  • Global outsourcing (not merely IT)
  • Strategic planning
  • Research
  • Advanced projects
  • Knowledge management

The point we are making is that if you view the IT organization as a pyramid with yourself at the top, it might appear there is nowhere else to go. The reality is that organizations can create titles and responsibilities that help them and you succeed. If you are a strong manager and go beyond the IT perimeter, you will find plenty of opportunities. After all, if lawyers (a specialty group) can become CEOs, why not CIOs?


About the Author
The Effective CIO: How to Achieve Outstanding Success through Strategic Alignment, Financial Management, and IT Governance by Eric Brown and William Yarberry, Jr. From The Effective CIO: How to Achieve Outstanding Success through Strategic Alignment, Financial Management, and IT Governance by Eric Brown and William Yarberry, Jr., New York: Auerbach Publications, 2009.


© Copyright 2009 Auerbach Publications