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?