Dilemma: How do I rev up my career to hit CIO?
I started out as a software engineer five years ago, moved up as director of programming, and then as VP of IT. In this capacity, I am almost a CIO, since I decide on the platform and the technology our company should head toward.

Right now, I have gone as far up as anyone can in this small company of 25 people—a mom-and-pop store that doesn’t reinvest profits and doesn’t take any big risks, in good times or bad.

My aim is to be the CIO of a midsize company (at least 1,000 employees or more) in the next five years. To reach that goal, I would like my employer to sponsor me for an MBA in Management of Technology degree. What can I do to make this goal a reality?

Solution: Find a bigger career track
Have you ever heard that fish grow to the size of the fish tank and no larger? Now, I’m not a fish person, so I have no idea if this is true, but it sounds right. As far as your career is concerned, you have grown to the size of the fish tank. Now you need to swim in a bigger tank.

Thanks for submitting your resume along with your question, as it helps provide insight on your experience and expertise. For the sake of the readers, here’s a brief summary of your background:

  • MSEE
  • 10 years experience
  • Started career as a hardware engineer and migrated to software
  • Joined present company five years ago as an IT programmer and quickly rose through the ranks to VP of IT
  • Leads a small team implementing state-of-the-art technology at a successful, stable company

Now to the issues posed by your query. Here are the major impressions I got from your resume:

  • Your career has really taken off in the past five years. You started as a nuts-and-bolts hardware design engineer and made the transition to business programming. I think of those two roles as requiring completely different mindsets. Clearly, you have shone in the IT role. Your resume not only shows success, but it also indicates that your career growth has continued to accelerate.
  • As for the resume itself, I would caution that it “oversells” your skills and suggest that you tone down the style. You have had some tremendous achievements that will speak for themselves with a more objective presentation. By overselling on the resume, you detract from these achievements.
  • My final impression from the resume: you have been on a rocket ride over the past five years, rising from programmer to VP. The challenge you face in your career is proving that you can succeed and continue to rise that quickly in a different setting. Can you continue the acceleration? Is that a realistic expectation?

You mention that your goal is to be the CIO of a midsize company. There are really two approaches to get there. You could make a move to another small company that is about to go through explosive growth. The other option would be to sign on at a medium or large company, managing a small team.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches:

VP/CIO of a small shop: The advantage here is that you would gain more experience at the top of the food chain. This would allow you to continue to prove that you can make the right platform and technology decisions. However, the only way to make this pay off for your career long term is if you select correctly and land in a company that continues to grow rapidly and demonstrates the sort of risk-taking behaviors you’re looking for. In this case, the team will grow under you, so your experience and responsibilities will grow as the team grows. However, there are risks. The first is that the company’s growth rate slows due to market conditions or management changes. Your “fish tank” then stays small, and you run the risk of being labeled as a small-company CIO. In another scenario, your new employer is acquired, and the company doesn’t need a second CIO.

Manager of a team at a larger company: A clear advantage is that you would have the opportunity to achieve bigger successes, leading to more options on the upward career steps that would advance your career within the same company. In addition, the medium or large company is more likely to offer educational benefits to cover that technical MBA degree you mentioned.

Climbing the new career ladder
Just remember, though, that any new career ladder will be a much longer one to climb. There may be other downsides that slow your progress. You will not be making all of the platform and technology decisions yourself. You will not own the entire IT organization but rather just one piece of it. It’s also likely that you will spend considerably more time on internal politics and not as much on the technology.

It appears that two key elements emerge as factors in your decision-making:

  • Decide whether a move to another small firm, albeit a more growth-oriented one, is really just “more of the same.” If it were that easy to select which companies will be the next to experience explosive growth, investors and analysts would have a much easier job.
  • Weigh the opportunities offered by the larger company (bigger budgets, possibly higher-level projects, larger staff, educational opportunities) against the constraints innate in a larger organization (more bureaucracy, more politics, longer career path) to see which outweighs the other in your mind.

Final words? Set clear and realistic expectations for yourself and do a little self-evaluation to see which type of organization best suits your personality and goals, while offering you the challenges that will fuel your career growth. Taking an intermediate step that presents some of the best from each setting may well help you make the longer-term decision later.