Leadership

Why do CIOs still need technical skills?

Scott Lowe says CIOs need to be business leaders first and technologists second, but there needs to be a good balance.

CIOs need to be business leaders.  That is an incontrovertible fact.  Over the years, however, much has been written by people who believe that a CIO can be fully successful without knowing anything about what's really keeping the lights on.  The tone of these articles often seems to suggest that companies can simply pluck someone out of finance or sales and thrust them into the job of the CIO and expect the rainbow and leprechaun to appear with the pot of gold.  After all, IT isn't really about technology, right?  It's about getting business done using technology.

Before I get into a discussion, let me ask a follow up set of questions:

  • Would you hire a CFO that had only ancillary experience in finance?
  • Would you hire a VP for Sales that didn't know the sales process from start to finish?

I'd bet that the answer to both of these questions is "No".  Why, then, do some companies believe that a CIO can simply be plucked from the fold without specific background or training in techology?  After all, no matter how strategic the efforts of an IT group, if the "lights go out", that's all that's going to matter.  That is, if the basics that people have come to expect fail to be met, it won't matter how experienced or inexperienced the CIO.

It's important to understand that I don't believe that the CIO needs to be the "alpha tech" in the office.  After all, except in very small organizations, the CIO probably won't be configuring switches, creating LUNs on a SAN or making sure that VMware is configured to fail over.  However, the CIO should:

  • Know what is and is not possible - to a reasonable extent - with the network hardware on hand.
  • Understand - at least at a basic level - what it means to create a LUN and how much capacity there is in the organization.
  • Realize that VMware can be configured for automated failover to meet disaster recovery requirements.

While the CIO must speak the language of the business in order to be taken seriously, without the respect of the IT staff, getting behind the CIO may be difficult.  Charisma and business acumen alone may be enough to accomplish this goal, but I believe that most IT people want to work for someone that understands their daily work, what it really takes to get a job done and appreciates the effort and challenges that are inherent in the work.

So... to summarize so far: I believe that CIOs must have at least some level of technical knowledge.  They need to understand what it really takes to keep the lights on.

This becomes ever more critical when it comes to prioritizing new projects and making a determination about what it will really take to implement a new project.  The tech-savvy CIO will gain an understanding of the new project and be able to better weigh it against what appear to be "tech-only"-focused projects, such as implementing a new backup system, which, on the very surface, would appear to have no business benefit.  Further, when considering new needs, a CIO that has a broad understanding of the technology environment may be able to envision a quicker past to success that leverages existing systems. At the very least, the tech-savvy CIO will be able to "sit at two tables".  The first table is the executive table, the magical place where business decisions are made.  The second table: The IT Directors table where the high-level implementation details are discussed.

I want to reiterate my opening sentence: CIOs need to be business leaders first and technologists second, but there needs to be a good balance.

Perhaps the primary danger with an especially tech-savvy CIO is this: Getting too deeply involved in the tactical at the expense of the strategic.  That may be the danger.  Perhaps, fearing this outcome, companies prefer someone who can't focus on the tactical?

About

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

15 comments
Pete6677
Pete6677

The reason a CIO needs to have some technical background is not in case they suddenly need to program or fix a router, but so they make correct tactical decisions. Specifically to keep them from having the wool pulled over their eyes by vendor salespeople and consultants, as so many non-technical CIOs are prone to. Its a lot harder to get ripped off when you understand the fundamentals and can see through the B.S. of a vendor sales pitch.

RMSx32767
RMSx32767

"IT isn???t really about technology, right? It???s about getting business done using technology." Some years ago I had to listen to a CAO (Chief Admin Officer) spout of about how "our company" was a technology company. I remember thinking "No, we are a service company that uses technology, and there is a fundamental difference."

anup_gupta2001
anup_gupta2001

This is very good article and some thing that every CIO goes through in his career. I like the two statements above * Would you hire a CFO that had only ancillary experience in finance? * Would you hire a VP for Sales that didn???t know the sales process from start to finish? This kind of summarizes the entire discussion. A CIO is also a professional and should be treated as one. Like the other so called line functions like VP-Sales, CFO etc...

sfynn
sfynn

I agree with your points. I look for a LEADER who can move the culture forward and evolve it through developing or sharing a strong VISION of how IT can help (what ever the business you are in). This is a leadership position and it needs to be filled by an individual that can inspire the larger team. If they have a finance background or technical or engineering etc... it really comes down to the level of credibility needed to gain the non-appointed title of leader and visionary that others rally around.

cd003284
cd003284

I've spent the last forty years observing that no matter where I've worked, or for whom, public or private, civilian or government, even in national and international defense contracting, politics can trump anything. Even with national and international security directly at stake, I've seen politics determine what we bought, from whom, at what price, under what terms, how the tech was implemented and assessed, by whom, for what purposes, with what results, and when so terribly and memorably often serious problems or even disasters ensued, politics determined the way we dealt with it and who was held accountable, and in what way and to what degree. So in my experience, even the question at hand is always subordinate to the politics of the organization. I'm old enough to have seen the last of the great American industrial age, where a kid who swept the floors of a factory could rise through the ranks, step by step, department by department, and come to be vice president of manufacturing in a multinational defense corporation. And I've seen tech savvy managers, and abysmally benighted managers, succeed and fail, and politics was always there every step of the way. So for me, this is an interesting discussion, but without a specific politcal context, it can't move to a conclusion.

fgranier
fgranier

HIRE MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKER

blarman
blarman

Is knowing how to take a business process it and convert it to a digital format. That means from end-user entry to end-user consumption. That's what IT does in a nutshell. It's helpful to know some of the nitty-gritty because it keeps you in touch with the IT staff and will help you to put together more accurate time estimates, budgets, forecasts, etc., but it doesn't matter how techie you are if you can't take a business process from start to finish. Oh, and I would consider knowing how to build a LUN secondary to knowing how to read an ERD...

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Interesting article on a topic without an absolute answer. Given that, I think the author took an acceptable middle road/non-answer despite the obvious desire to jump in on the techie side of the argument. It's sometimes hard to accept that as a person moves higher in an organization the need to be able to make low level decisions decreases. Instead the ability to work with others and help them make decisions increases. The trick -- for everyone -- is to realize that decisions need to be made by people with the knowledge, skills and sweat equity to make those decisions. Making matters worse is the need to oversee more skill sets as one moves higher in the hierarchy. Picture a construction company working on a house. You'll need specialized skills in electrical, plumbing, mechanical, carpentry, and roofing. It's highly unlikely that one person could maintain skills in all those (Mike Holmes included). But it gets worse. There are at least five different carpenters involved in building a house (there may be more, I stopped at five). No one person could claim skills in all those areas. Imagine for a moment, the number of skill sets your typical CEO or COO would need. Having said that the purpose of a CIO, CFO, CMO and other specialist C-suite types is twofold. Firstly, to bring implications awareness to strategic decision making and secondly to bring strategic awareness to operational decision making. In order to perform the first of those duties, it is necessary to have an understanding and awareness of their discipline. A CIO without an understanding of social marketing, privacy issues, BPM, cloud computing and dozens more would be worse than useless in today's world. But even worse would be to not recognize when the specialists need to be involved in the decision. The key is in the word understanding. Being able to code in JAVA or C.Net is totally useless at that level. Being able to recognize that a change in hardware requires a change in software and in training is. Understanding the trade offs between packages, custom programming and open source is. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of various platforms is. Being able to create the company's website is not. Of course, that does require the ability, recognition and willingness to delegate technical decisions to those best suited to make them. And to admit that you don't know everything and do make mistakes.

cdasso45
cdasso45

A senior IT leader cannot possibly direct his/her staff to provide the best solutions without being technically knowledgeable. The "best solutions" always involve business needs and technology. I know that as a senior leader a large portion of my time is consumed keeping up both fronts; business and technology.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I don't expect a CIO / CTO to have strong 'hands on' technical skills. One should have an understanding of the capabilities of the technologies already in house, and of technologies with the potential to replace or augment them. The vehicle fleet manager of a road construction company doesn't need to know how to operate the specialized equipment involved. He does need to know the differences, how many of each the company has, where and when they're best deployed, the pros and cons of each, etc.

alan.radlett
alan.radlett

You are so right, but the current "management philosophy" tends to be "Manageers can mange anything - specific knowledge is not important". The failure of this policy has been revealed in the UK's banking failures in that many of the senior management did not have extensive banking experience and thus did not understand the complexity of the credit swap vehicles that thier traders were using. Similarly the UK's National Health Service have appointed a layer of management wiyhout any health background. These now seem to focus on meeting the government's targets regardless of the impact to the actual running of the hospitals

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

I need to think about this one for a while.It was corporate president and vice president.Now it's IT with a CIO.CEO= Chief executive officer.(GOD=good old dude.)

RMSx32767
RMSx32767

The US auto industry had problems due (among other reasons) to managers with no experience in auto manufacturing.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

It's an abbreviation for a job title. The position itself recognizes the increased importance of IT to businesses over the last thirty years or so, to the level of importance of financial, legal, and personnel management.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Chief Embezzlement Officer CFO = Chief Fraud Officer and so on. This is just further confirmation that all Business sole aim in life is to Make Money. To they end that will Lie, Cheat, Steal and do all sorts of Illegal things thinking that they will not get caught and then shrugging their shoulders when they do with a [b]So What Attitude.[/b] ;) Col

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