CIOs: The IT World Rests in Their Hands

THE COURSE LEADING to the desk of the chief information officer is not an easy path to chart. Rapid changes in technology often mean diverse and shifting job responsibilities for the CIO. But technology's move to the forefront of business -- in particular, the struggle to reshape business models around the Internet -- has also created abundant opportunities for the CIO.

The executive charged with heading up a company's IT systems and departments, for obvious reasons, needs a solid grounding in technology. But as technology and business strategy become more intertwined, business skills -- particularly a business-minded vision of technology -- are indispensable. The image of a technology leader as an isolated scientist enjoying the solitary immersion in technology has been thrown out in favor of a suit with technology smarts.

This demand for CIOs with a strong business background is a growing trend, according to recruiters who place high-level technology executives.

"They wouldn't get a CIO job without some business skills," says Stephen Markman, vice president at Pencom Systems, a senior-level IT recruiter, in New York. "[CIOs] have to have business acumen and know how businesses are put together. Great communication and business skills are always key as you move up the ladder."

Aside from shifting business models, another incentive for business savvy is that in addition to overseeing the company's technology systems, the CIO must also be a contributing member of the executive team.

"The last CIO I placed, the company asked specifically for a business person who moved into technology," says Beverly Lieberman, vice president of Halbrecht Lieberman Associates, a Stamford, Conn.-based executive search company that places CIOs and chief technology officers. "If they come from business, it is an insurance policy that the CIO speaks their language. It is important in the leadership team that the CEO and CIO share language and ideology."

"They want their CIO to be a strategic partner, [to] be able to sit at the executive table, be comfortable and communicative -- not talking technobabble, but speaking in crisp business terms," Lieberman adds.

According to Peter Solvik, senior vice president and CIO of Cisco Systems, in San Jose, Calif., a CIO needs to be a visionary who understands how technology can support business transformation.

"The unique skill that CIOs need and that businesses really long for [is] being able to creatively and strategically see how technology can impact the business and be [able] to communicate that vision," Solvik says. "[A CIO] must communicate effectively and build partnerships effectively at the executive level to create, implement, and carry those visions forward."

Translation challenges

Communication can be particularly challenging at the level of CIO because of the need to translate technical language for non-technical audiences and relate bad news.

"[It is a] challenge to communicate news, good and bad, in a way that other people -- both management and employees -- can understand," says Len Bayer, chief scientist at Harris Interactive, in Rochester, N.Y. "Often technical people enjoy the immersion in technology for its own sake. And it is difficult for users and funders of the technology to share that kind of excitement.

Therefore, you have to convey what the technology means to them in untechnical terms, [which] is often a very difficult task."

As the CIO of Cisco, Solvik carries a lot of responsibility. Aside from managing the company's use of information technology, including data and voice networks, personal computing, data centers, and business applications, Solvik is a leader in Cisco's Internet strategy. And Solvik says he spends about a third of his time out representing the company -- speaking and working with large strategic customers to help them develop Internet strategy.

The Internet is quickly changing how businesses are created, structured, and run. And as Internet strategy becomes the focal point of business for many companies, the CIO's opportunity to play a prominent role in a company's development is growing.

"The Internet has expanded the CIO's ability to impact the company," Lieberman says. "It is a real plus for CIOs."

In addition to expanding the role of CIO, the Internet is also creating more job opportunities, opening the position to a wider array of backgrounds and experiences.

"You have new companies and existing companies that are embracing the Internet or building another business around the Internet. That just makes the demand for [CIOs] unbelievable," Markman says.

Recruiters say that, alongside business savvy, companies also want a CIO with the ability to understand the specific demands of that company's business.

"Companies are looking for someone with the ability to understand the uniqueness of their business," Lieberman says.

Cisco's Solvik agrees that marketplace knowledge is vital to gaining a competitive edge, whether someone aspires to become a CIO or already fills the shoes.

"I think certainly business skills are most important -- understanding the business, understanding all the business functions, being very in touch with the customers and the marketplace the company is in," Solvik says.

Garnering industry-specific skills is also advantageous to landing a CIO job.

For someone intent on landing a CIO job with an Internet company, it is important to have a grounding in business and technology as well as experience tailored to the specific demands of running a business via the Internet.

George Nassef's preparation for CIO of Internet job-search company HotJobs.com, in New York, began before the Internet took off. Early in his career, he spent 10 years with American Airlines' Sabre computer services, a global commerce system for private transactions, built in the 1960s to sell travel services to travel agents. Nassef moved on to CTO of a business travel Web site and then headed up his own consulting company on the Internet to help companies scale technology for e-commerce.

Nassef's resume 10 years ago didn't appear especially tailored to Internet business, but specific elements of jobs gave him the right combination of knowledge and experience.

"As someone who grew up in a large shop like American Airlines' [Sabre], I was familiar with running large, reliable, [electronic]-commerce-speed networks," Nassef says. "Anyone who grows up learning to support 99.9 percent availability is able to add value to Internet companies."

"I'm first a business man and second a technologist, which lends itself to e-commerce because it is about conducting business over the Internet, and the technology serves the business purpose," Nassef says.

The means of achieving this blend of business and technology know-how is a matter of choice.

Jennifer Hall, vice president of technology operations at Intuit, a software company in Mountain View, Calif., earned her formal education in technology but gained knowledge and experience in both business and technology throughout her career.

According to Hall, the foundation for a CIO's success is built on a mixture of business and technology skills, but a CIO also needs the subtle ability to bridge the gap between those two environments, which requires exemplary people skills.

"It is as much a people business as a technology business. The key to being a CIO is managing people effectively to be able [to] do the job with the technology," Hall says.

Acquiring skills

IT managers with sights on the office of CIO can acquire business skills through formal education or on a daily basis through job experience.

"[Business] skill is a matter of witnessing good business process during your career," Nassef says. "Sooner or later you are exposed to all the facets of business, whether you come from the business or technology side of things."

"Most technology folks are exposed to supplier relations, then later if they keep climbing the ranks, they get customer exposure, service-level agreements.

Fortunately, I've had a portion of my career in each of those areas and a progression of responsibility along the way. It is a continuum of experience building," Nassef says.

For those carving out a path from the business side, the necessary technology skills can also be culled from experience.

Ellen Knapp, CIO of PricewaterhouseCoopers, in New York, came from a business background without a clear trail to a career in technology. However, the inclusion of technology strategy development in her business roles provided the necessary technical base.

"I was not in the CIO chain of events. But my business background was in management consulting, primarily in the area of business strategy and technology strategy for multinationals," Knapp says. "I didn't find [the job of CIO] to be a difficult transition."

With such a long and varied list of job duties as well as ways to get there, how does one set out to become a CIO?

According to Knapp, a CIO needs a broad range of experiences in diverse roles and technologies. "Make sure you take steps throughout your career to take more responsibilities horizontally across different technology functions," Knapp says.

"For those coming from the technology side, I would recommend branching out into management consulting for a few years to get more of a business orientation," Knapp adds. "That way, you see lots of different companies and infrastructures so you have a broader base of experience as to how companies leverage technology in different sectors."

Recruiters advise taking leadership roles and developing soft skills.

"I would advise they get involved in e-commerce projects that are important in the company because that is where the action is today," recruiter Lieberman says. "They should try to get a blend of application development and infrastructure management experience."

According to Lieberman, setting out with a master of business administration is ideal, but future CIOs -- whatever their formal education amounts to -- are better served developing communication skills and leadership attributes.

CIOs emphasize the importance of being well-rounded, while keeping current with the newest developments, such as Web-based technologies.

"We happen to be in a profession that changes every 30 seconds," Knapp says.

"There is a huge amount to know and to keep pace with. You also need to stay current with what your competitors are doing and what the benchmarks are."

Whatever road a person takes to become CIO, it is advantageous to be in tune with the company's values and to get noticed.

"It is important to be working on strategic projects that are going to have a very big impact to the company," Solvik says. "And it is [important] to focus on delivering the kind of business results that impact the business and are recognized by the business."

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