The CIO HR Corner: At career crossroads

CIO Republic's career columnist helps guide two tech leaders: one who is looking for the best path to the CEO role, and one who is seeking a CIO position.

CIO Republic would like to introduce a new monthly column, CIO HR Corner, focused on helping IT executives and leaders find the right answers and approaches for staffing and personnel issues. If you have a question you’d like CIO Republic Columnist Peter Woolford to answer, e-mail it to us.

Question: How do I change the "I" to an "E"?
I am an experienced CIO and I'd like to consider a career change to a CEO or COO. What can I do in my current job to make this transition possible? I doubt I can make this transition within my current organization.

Writer’s anonymity requested

Answer: P&L experience is key
You can do several things to make that transition. The most obvious difference in the CIO role vs. CEO or COO is that, typically, the CIO heads a cost center, while the CEO or COO is responsible for P&L. To put you in a better position to move up, you could add that P&L responsibility to your current role. I see two ways to do that: Add a professional services group, or add an information-based Web service to your company. Either would create a revenue stream that you could manage. The key to either option is to start them small and keep control of them as they grow. If you start too big too soon, your company will be tempted to bring in an outsider with P&L experience to run it.

You could also become an expert in corporate finances. An executive MBA, or even better, a full MBA would be useful here. Getting a CPA designation is not really likely at this point in your career, due to the time needed for the course and exam requirements.

Further, you should change the connections you make in your industry. Rather than participating exclusively in CIO organizations, start investing time in organizations at the next level. Find out what organizations CEOs and COOs belong to in your city and join them.

A final thought: Rather than moving up in your organization, or in that of a competitor, move to a company that supports an IT department like yours. In other words, get into a vendor company. Your connections would be so highly valued that a vendor company would likely overlook your lack of P&L responsibility.

Question: Am I on the right path toward CIO?
I am planning to start working on my master's degree in the fall, and I am second-guessing the path I have chosen. I obtained my B.S. with majors in computer science and mathematics, and was planning on getting my master's in management of information systems.

I was talking to a colleague the other day who told me I should get a master's in business administration. I eventually plan on becoming a CIO and really am unsure of how to get there. My colleague warned me against going the MIS route, because he felt it would make me look too "geeky" and I would need to show more business savvy than technical expertise for a CIO (CTO) role. I am currently working in a smaller company as desktop support and doing some network administration duties also. Is the path I am working on sufficient for the CIO position, or should I venture down the business administration route?

Thanks for your help. I appreciate it.

Joshua Wright

Answer: It depends on how you define "CIO"
You've heard the phrase "timing is everything," right? That is the issue here. At the 10,000-foot level, you are doing two very important things: continuing your education and thinking about your long-term career goals. That puts you two steps ahead of most of your peers. Let's look at the possible career paths ahead of you at this point, and the important milestones along the way. Then we can talk about the steps that are right for you.

There are really two types of CIO roles: the small-company CIO and the large-company CIO. The small-company CIO typically runs an environment of networks, servers, and purchased applications. The IT group will operate and maintain existing systems, and will select and implement new systems. Typically, everyone in the IT department (with the possible exception of the CIO) is hands-on with the technology and systems on a daily basis. The large-company CIO, on the other hand, manages larger groups performing essentially the same functions, as well as groups developing custom applications. Most of the management team at a large company is hands-off with the technology.

The career steps to a small-company CIO role are typically: desktop admin, server admin, network admin, WAN admin, IT manager, IT director, and then CIO. Depending on the company, these roles can be combined, or the top-level IT role may be the IT manager or director. The possible career steps to a large-company CIO role are much more varied: moving from CIO of a smaller company to a larger company, coming up the network-admin ranks, or coming up the application-development ranks.

Given that you have just started your career, you have several options ahead of you. You can stay with small companies and keep aiming for increased responsibility in the network and server admin arena. Or, you can switch to big companies. Your title will increase more rapidly in the small company route, but you will most likely need to switch companies more often to move up.

The issue from your career perspective is that you are on the first rung of the ladder. You have a lot of climbing ahead of you that is based on technical skills. The time when the MBA will be valuable is when you make the switch to a hands-off role. Getting the MBA while you are on the first rung of the ladder may actually impede your career. You will appear too “businessy” for this stage of your career. (The only MBA that would change my thinking on the career implications would be from one of the top 10 MBA schools. The cachet of a top MBA school would stay with you for life.)

So, your friend is correct: An MBA would make sense if you want to be a CIO. The problem is the timing. You don't want an MBA at this point. As for the concern of appearing "too geeky," I would agree if you were planning to pursue an MS in computer science. I disagree with your friend's concern if you go for the master's in MIS. You will earn promotions more quickly by earning the master's in MIS.

Have a question?
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