The CIO role: How tech's times are a-changing

CIO is becoming a cool career path...

How is the CIO role changing?

Ask most people what a CIO does and all you are likely to get is a blank starePhoto: Shutterstock

Ask the man in the street what a CEO does and they won't hesitate to tell you it's the executive in charge of running a business. It's the man or woman with clout in the boardroom. Sir Alan 'You're Fired' Sugar from The Apprentice, say, or Microsoft's chair-throwing, keynote-mauling Steve Ballmer.

Now ask what a CIO does and you're likely to get the sort of blank look that crosses the faces of Apprentice contestants when asked why the bladdy hell they failed a task a three-year-old could do in its sleep. The man in the street doesn't know you exist. But the times, they are a-changing.

"The title CIO used to mean Career Is Over," says Tony McAlister, CTO of Betfair. "There's a bit of a perception in the business that we're nerds and geeks, and they never want to let us out of our office because we'll say something stupid or we'll look silly with our dark glasses with tape around them. And that has been built up over time, and somewhat leveraged by people in my side of the house to our advantage, but I think that's dissipating.

"When you look at some of the largest companies on the planet right now - Google, both of those guys are tech guys. Zynga, tech guy. Facebook, tech guy. They're all tech guys who have become the CEOs and they're running some of the biggest companies on the planet now... CIO is becoming a cool career path."

Betfair CTO Tony McAlister

CIO no longer means Career Is Over, says Betfair CTO Tony McAlisterPhoto: Betfair

Part of the reason for the low public profile of the CIO role can be explained by the many different job titles associated with it. There are CIOs, CTOs and COOs all performing the duties of the chief information officer, along with heads of IT, heads of technology, director generals of IT, chief officers of IT, business process directors, IS directors, directors of technology strategy, directors of innovation, to name just a few of the titles attached to today's CIO. Is it any wonder the general public remains at best unaware of what a CIO is and does?

Nic Bellenberg, IT director at magazine publisher Hachette Filipacchi, says all businesses rely on technology to make them function. "You have to keep that running, you have to think of new ways of doing things that make it run better," he says, explaining the job in layman's terms. The many titles that CIOs can be found working under are a symptom of how tightly tailored the role is to the specific requirements of each organisation, he says. It's horses for courses - and Bellenberg sees more horses and more courses shaping the CIO role in future.

"There seem to be so many different ways of fulfilling these roles that a lot of it's ultimately driven by the businesses, the companies, the boards, how they're structured, how they've grown, where they've come from, where they're going to and what they want to achieve," he says. "There are going to be lots and lots of different companies with lots and lots of different requirements."

"The great thing about the CIO [title] is...