Career Counsel

FRAMINGHAM (08/01/2000) - Dueling Expertise Q: What qualifications should a CIO have? The typical answer to this age-old question is that a CIO needs to be business focused rather than technology focused. I agree with that. However, every job ad I see for a CIO position, at least here in Silicon Valley, calls for 10 years' experience in networking and serious technical knowledge. Maybe it's because startups can't afford a senior person and a good technical person.

I worked my way up through various business areas, including engineering and quality, to vice president of IT, and have a strong business and process focus.

But it seems that contrary to what you and other people are saying, that's not what the jobs out there are all about.

A: Let's address a few subtle but critical points on the topic of balancing CIO business and technical experience. First, the issue of the true CIO role (and the ideal CIO background) is not about being business focused rather than technology focused, as you have stated, but being business focused and technology focused. Possessing one expertise without the other may be a leadership problem with likely negative outcomes.

Second, I doubt that the help-wanted writers intentionally exclude business skills and experience when asking for networking experience and depth of technical knowledge. If a given ad is technically focused, then perhaps the position being represented is not a true CIO role but is using the title to dress it up and attract responses.

Third, you are correct that in early-stage companies the CEO and other founders may have already established a business plan for the enterprise, and thus less may be expected of a CIO in this area, at least in the short term.

Lastly, your impression of help-wanted ads for CIOs in Silicon Valley may be skewed toward the world of suppliers and vendors of hardware, software, infrastructure and services in which technological innovation outweighs the business side of the CIO position, especially if it crosses over into the CTO role or vice versa.

PEOPLE LIKE ME Q: I'm a CIO at a multibillion-dollar, private Wall Street company. I rose up from the trenches as a technical expert with highly focused business instincts and a wide range of operations experience. I was previously the president and founder of a small boutique consulting business that was bought by my current employer with the intent of securing the talent of the employee base--which is now the company's Information Science department.

I am in my early 40s and could retire at any time--but I don't want to. My dilemma is that I have no degree and no certifications, only an incredible body of successful work experience. The reason I started my own business in the first place was because I was unemployable in the traditional sense. I don't think I have the energy to do the startup thing on my own again, but, quite frankly, I'm bored with the whole Wall Street scene and what it encompasses.

Where do I find a situation that will look at my overall success without regard to my lack of formal education? My salary is in excess of $1 million, and my investment income surpassed that some time ago. I'm not in it for the money at this point. I like to make things happen, and I will only consider a situation where I am surrounded by like-minded people. Where do I find a company that is looking for someone like me?

A: You are long past the point at which your lack of a degree, and certainly your lack of certifications, has any relevance to your dilemma. Your track record and accomplishments on the job are clearly what matters now. If you're not ready to retire (which means you will be working hard like the rest of us), don't want to create another startup (which means that you will be working for someone else), don't want to stay on Wall Street and don't need to make $1 million a year, then I would suggest looking for a CIO or CTO position outside of the finance world. What other interests do you have? Perhaps you are attracted to the arts, higher education, publishing, government or any number of industries.

You are in the enviable position to pick and choose and can trade off on compensation--big time. You will be at a disadvantage, however, against candidates who possess the appropriate industry experience, and there will be those interviewers who will be concerned about your unusual career step and what it may imply about you. But patience and perseverance should win out in this very strong seller's labor market. If this approach misses, do what lots of others with capital are doing these days: innovate, invest and incubate.

GETTING UP TO SPEED Q: I have a technical background as a systems engineer and an MS MIS degree from a prestigious European school. I have always been informed about the newest technologies and issues, but I left everyday IT nearly seven years ago to start a new business. I now have managerial experience but no telecom experience, and no e-commerce projects to add to my rsum. I know technology, I know how to manage people and I am also bilingual.

Should I give it a try as a CIO?

A: Seven years away from IT is a very, very long period of absence in this fast-moving continuum. As you've noted, you have not yet acquired any experience in two of today's most important IT areas--networking and e-commerce--and you are likely unfamiliar with much of the state-of-the-art in distributed computing, data warehousing, ERP systems, customer relationship management (CRM) applications and so on. And when you left IT, you were a systems engineer with little or no management experience.

Having said the obvious, you have an information technology foundation and leadership experience to bring to bear, plus some particular industry expertise that you haven't mentioned. I would therefore venture into the market to see what reception you might receive in competing for the top IT position at smaller companies within your industry knowledge space, but be prepared to fall back to a lower level. Your main objective must be getting back into an appropriate IT career path and gaining an opportunity to update your skills and experience for future growth.

CIO FOR HIRE Q: I would like to explore the opportunity of marketing myself as an interim CIO consultant. Any tips or resources you can direct me toward to more fully consider this career option?

A: If you have industry visibility and a strong reputation based on a track record as a highly accomplished CIO, then you might qualify for this very rewarding career alternative. This is particularly true if you have gained fame in turning around troubled IT environments and building world-class IT functions and organizations--especially in large and complex companies in a particular industry such as financial services or retailing or in a certain business model such as high-volume distribution companies.

It helps if you are known in the business, speak at conferences, are interviewed and quoted in trade publications and so forth. Marketing yourself can be tough, especially while on assignment, so consider aligning yourself with an organization that specializes in pro tem employment or with a consulting company that handles this type of assignment. A couple of the better-known organizations in this space are The Feld Group and Transition Partners.

WHAT'S WRONG HERE? Q: The reaction I get from supervisors and prospective job interviewers concerns me. They frequently seem intimidated by my background, confidence and education. I am a project manager, currently working on disaster recovery for a government agency. I'm 50 years old and have 15 years' IS experience that includes programming, networking and systems administration. I am completing a master's degree in executive management and am familiar with both management and technology. I'm preparing myself for a middle management position and will be looking at the CIO position after a few more years. The insecure reaction is an obstacle because it prevents my getting further positions and experience needed to obtain my goals. Do you have any suggestions?

A: I wish I could be the proverbial fly on the wall at your interviews and on the job so that I could get some sense of where you are going off track. So let's see what we do know. Clue No. 1: You are getting interviews, so we can rule out your rsum as being problematic. Clue No. 2: You're getting the same response from your superiors as from your interviewers, so it's not an interviewing problem that we are dealing with. Clue No. 3: Those with whom you interact, both interviewers and supervisors, "frequently seem to be intimidated by [your] background, confidence and education." But the word seem is in the eye of the beholder, in this case, you. That's where we must look to figure out this problem.

My conclusion is that you may be posturing or communicating an attitude (perhaps superiority) that elicits a negative response from recipients, and you perceive that reaction as intimidation.

Tough as it may be, find someone who knows you, that you respect and trust, regardless of whether you like him or her and what you may hear, and ask direct questions designed to elicit honest answers about your interpersonal skills.

This exercise can pay enormously in career opportunities and help you with your upcoming interviews.

DRESSING UP A DEGREE Q: I read with great interest your opinion in a previous column concerning the MBA degree as a premier path to senior management positions. I am almost finished with a master's degree in executive management that, while lesser known and recognized, has a very similar emphasis. Included are economics, financial systems, marketing, IT management, research analysis, leadership, policy, strategic planning and executive decision making. The basic difference, in my opinion, is when the classes are taught, day or night.

I have considered looking elsewhere for a program that would take my course work into consideration and allow me to add whatever difference to get an MBA.

But, "Why bother?" I ask. Short of hiring a PR specialist, how would you suggest dressing up the executive management degree to be the strong credential for management that it is?

A: Yes, I have long maintained that the combination of a technical undergraduate degree and an MBA is a prototypical and very powerful combination of educational credentials for a model CIO rsum.

That said, I always focus on the learning objectives, curriculum content and pedagogical quality of any educational achievement when evaluating its significance. Your master's degree sounds like it has MBA-type course requirements, and I don't think you can, should or need to dress it up. You certainly should not be defensive or apologetic for it.

However, you would be well advised to list the program's courses, just as you did for me in your question, in the line that follows the degree on your rsum.

Your written or verbal explanation of the program's focus and content will address the bias of the reader or interviewer who is hung up on the letters of your degree rather than on what you've learned, or perhaps not. In the latter case, move on to a more reasonably minded audience.

Mark Polansky is a managing director and member of the advanced technology practice of Korn/Ferry International in New York City. He is also the chairman of the Greater New York Chapter of the Society for Information Management. The Web-based Executive Career Counselor column is edited by Web Research Editor Kathleen Kotwica. She can be reached at kkotwica@cio.com.

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