Want to succeed in IT? Five tips from the top

How to reach the very top of the IT profession may remain a closed book to most technologists, but leading CIO Paul Coby has some simple advice on the best way to get there.

Top CIO Paul Coby: Never put innovation before day-to-day operations. Photo: John Lewis

So, you want to be a top CIO? Sounds like a reasonable career aim, but how do you climb the greasy pole and reach the highest echelons of IT leadership?

If you want best-practice career advice, it makes sense to listen to people who have already excelled - and are continuing to excel - in the technology chief position. Paul Coby is one such CIO, IT director at UK retail giant John Lewis and former technology chief at British Airways.

Coby spent a decade as group CIO of the airline, a role he prefaced with 17 years at the forefront of the UK public sector. As well as running IT for John Lewis, Coby holds a senior position at advisory body e-skills UK. Here, he draws on his experience and offers his five top tips to IT professionals looking to become a successful next-generation CIO.

1. Connect to your business customers

Coby's experiences have led him to develop a simple maxim: "There are no IT projects, just business projects."

Coby concedes he has become well known for this mantra: "That phrase resonates," he says. "People just get it."

The explanation for the strength of that response is simple: success in modern IT is all about using technology to support new business opportunities. IT professionals looking to support the organisation along that development path must be engaged. "You always need to connect to your business customers," says Coby.

2. Don't talk jargon

Coby's advice to other CIOs is to avoid falling into the techno-babble trap and ensure the organisation is alert to the business benefits of technology.

"Don't talk jargon," he says. "We know that's important but anything that makes IT sound obscure will make people switch off. And IT is too important to modern business for you to allow that to happen."

3. Remember that IT is a team sport

Good CIOs have a strong personality and are not afraid to lead from the front. But those character traits in isolation will not be enough. A good CIO is only as great as their supporting cast, something that Coby is keen to recognise.

"Always remember that IT is a team sport," says Coby, who says success does not necessarily start and end with the appointment of a CIO.

For example, Coby says a lot of the good things he has achieved since joining John Lewis began before he arrived. As ever, IT is in flux - and the speed of the digital transformation means great CIOs must lead their team through choppy waters.

"Everyone's technology environment is going to continue to become more complicated," says Coby. "The people supporting IT have to deal with very complex systems. And the ongoing digital transformation means the CIO sits at the very top of a very large iceberg. The role of the CIO is to enable the transformation."

4. Never put innovation before day-to-day operations

Most IT leaders come from a technical background. But CIOs looking to get ahead are often warned not to just concentrate on the bits and bytes of technology.

While technology provides the backbone to modern business operations, it is no longer a dark art. The digital age is all about being able to plug and play different systems, and to draw on applications and information on-demand. CIOs looking to help the business make the most of digital technology must get strategic.

However, Coby issues a word of warning. "Operations really matter," he says, stressing that good IT leaders do not prioritise innovation at the expense of day-to-day systems.

Coby is looking at how to transform IT at John Lewis and working out how to make the most of innovative technology, such as the use of tablet devices on the shopfloor. "We want to deliver great things," he says. "But if tills go down, no one will listen to me about innovation."

5. Enjoy your job

The final piece of advice from Coby is simple: "Try and enjoy it."

Coby says any job has its challenges and IT leadership is no different. He is pulled in a number of directions, as John Lewis continues to pursue an ambitious growth strategy that over the past decade has led the retailer to bring regional shops under a single brand and open new stores.

Yet Coby relishes the fast pace of change in retail, which he says is different to other sectors. Across back-end operations and front-end innovations, he is concentrating on the things that staff and customers will expect as standard in the next few years

"I like this job because it's a lot of fun," says Coby. "The business continues to change and people in the organisation really need the IT team to deliver."


Mark Samuels is a business journalist and editor at IT leadership organisation CIO Connect. He has written for various organisations, including the Economist Intelligence Unit, Guardian Government Computing and Times Higher Education.


A leader inthefield again points to the need for technologists to morph into a new persona when assuming the c-suite address. We have to be superior technicians for much of our career path, taking the significant time to know and excell at the details and jargon. We choose to move from the "bench to the desk" and have to develope a complete newest of skill sets, to succeed. I think this is only one of the components of the IT field that can make our life path fun. Want the c-suite, it's an option, want to go academic it's there, want to stay with the bench, challenge and reward await! We are lucky to have chosen the bits and bites!


In a good to great organization, these tips are timeless but since not all companies fall with this category, I would add Situational Awareness - getting the feel for the corporate culture, the attitude of management, and the needs and wants of the customers your support. I would also suggest you aim for a well-rounded set of job experiences with ever increasing rolls of responsibility along with finding a mentor who can guide you through tough times and help prepare you for attaining the right jobs at the right times. Mentors can save you years of struggling and prevent you from missing the mark you set for yourself. To connect with your business customers you have to know what the need and want. You need to explore cost effective ways to support them that improves their productivity with the smallest amount of learning curve. Make them more effective and efficient on their job by knowing what is really needed then prioritize these needs and creating aplan of action for achieving the goals of effectiveness and efficiency. IT is a team sport but many managers believe to be on their team you have to do things their way and within their time table. In this environment, thinking you are an equal with autonomy to express yourself could be a job-ending event. If you have multiple managers each with their own definition of a team member then you have to find ways to juggle the situation until you can find a more productive atmosphere. Day to day operations should be the top priority to which the budget is geared toward and to which the largest amount of effort is expended. However, many managers want the latest, greatest toys and will not be pursuaded otherwise. Scheduled upgardes to network infrastructure is postponed while iPads, iPhones, and other technologies are acquired and implemented which place an even greater strain on existing bandwidth provided over aging components. Yes! We should all enjoy our jobs. That's why most of us got into the IT business in the first place but office politics is the bain of many an otherwise pleasant experience. If you cannot enjoy the job, don't take it. If you find a change in management has made your job onerous, find another.


These don't apply only to the CIO either. Even the helpdesk folks could take some pages from this playbook.

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