November 22, 2007 § Leave a comment

A recent discussion on the EDUCASUE CIO listserv touched on a topic that seems to be a theme in many discussions, articles and presentations of late within IT circles. Deepak Mathew at Rice University, asked, “How [do you] determine what degree to pursue. MS in MIS or an MBA? I guess it depends on one’s needs/the company’s needs and dependent on other variables. Which has more value?”

His question, essentially, what does it take to become a CIO, is actually just the beginning of the debate. Once you have the job, what role does the CIO play within the organization? And considering the role of technology, can the CIO role be a path to a position as CEO (i.e. campus President)?

The issue Deepack raises, I believe, has less to do with what degree(s) one should pursue, than what experience one needs to not only acquire a position as CIO, but also serve the institution well. I wonder if his motivation for asking is due to the diversity of experience found in the backgrounds of the CIO’s employed throughout the world’s colleges and universities. What experience (if we can consider education as part of one’s experience) would be most valuable; academic, technical or business? Should one achieve a broad (and thus perhaps shallow) understanding of the issues related to IT management, or should one focus on a specific (and perhaps narrow) skill set?

This was echoed, again on the EDUCAUSE CIO listserv, by Dennis Huff, AVP Information Systems at Houston Baptist University:

With all the rapid advances in technology, do you find, like me, it is much more difficult to maintain a technical bent as CIO? I find I cannot spend time trying to get down to the detail that those who work for me are purposed to do. I spend my time visioning and managing resources to get the job done.

Quite honestly I have found the various career paths of many in IT management, odd: English professors, Ornithology professors, procurement officers, institutional researchers, even attorneys. I guess, if the role of IT is to support teaching and learning, who better than a professor to provide leadership? If IT is a cost center at your institution, perhaps someone from purchasing provides the best management. IR? Legal?

Obviously no one would expect every academic institution to operate the same. Clearly each has differing missions, offering a wide range of programs, all with diverse faculty, staff and student bodies. In addition, even those institutions with similarities may be at very different places with regard to their IT services. Some organizations may need technical development while others may need more fiscal management, and still others, alignment with the academic vision; or, a technologist, MBA or faculty member, respectively.

I don’t think there is a specific path that can guarantee a CIO position at a specific campus. Consider my own! My first position was as a Medical Illustrator–what’s that got to do with IT? Well not many in Graphic Arts still use pen and ink on velum, in fact by the time I was in high school we where using computers for graphic design, illustration, CAD, photography, etc. As a Medical Illustrator at UCLA, the graphic representation of anatomical features with traditional artistic techniques had long ago been replaced by Computer Generated Images (the other CGI): techniques such as image processing, modeling, visualization and simulations. So while my title was not one normally associated with IT, I spent much more time writing (software) than drawing (pictures). In fact, while my working title was Senior Medical Illustrator, my payroll classification was Senior Programmer Analyst.

In my case, the advancement to CIO was, I feel, only possible through the efforts of my superiors who empowered me with more responsibility as I proved worthy (hopefully that was the reason), from Programmer to Senior Programmer, to Project Manager, to Department Manager, to IT Director, to CIO. Each role carried broader responsibilities, such as; scheduling, planning, budgeting, personnel,
hiring, etc. My business/operational training came as my projects and roles within those projects grew, reflecting the vision in “From Cradle to CIO: Growing IT Leaders.”

My bias leads me to believe technical proficiency is the most important quality needed in order to be a successful CIO; after all its a technical field. Yet, if I am honest, in my year as a CIO I’ve spent more time on non-technical issues: financial (annual operational budgets, project/initiatives), political (IT Governance and Project Management), operations (scope of services, service level agreements) and administrative (re-organization, hiring, re-classifications).

Considering this, is it reasonable to expect that a single person will, not only have the breadth of experience needed, but the expertise in each field as well? So perhaps CIO’s are really like football players. Each CIO has a specialty (technical, business, administrative, academic) just like an individual football player (quarterback, lineman, kicker, receiver). And just like in the NFL where players move around and join different franchises based on the specific needs of those teams, CIO’s are recruited based on the specific needs of the institution.

Perhaps this is why, according to CIO Magazine’s “2007 State of the CIO” survey, the average tenure of CIO’s is only five years: just as the business-oriented CIO gets the IT department financially sound, someone decides “we need to be more innovative” and they find themselves a new CIO with a technical background.

All of the above clearly shows that despite the many discussions in technology circles regarding how to get a seat at the boardroom table, because the skill set needed to run IT is broader than any one person can be expected to posses, the most important qualities for a successful CIO–and thus the answers to the questions posed at the beginning of this post–are openness, transparency and collaboration.


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