Career tips for the CTO/CIO path

One of the most frequent questions I’ve gotten after starting this blog pertains to how one can work up to the CTO or CIO role in IT. This isn’t all that easy to answer, other than with some platitudes. Every career is different; every individual takes a separate path. I can’t exactly recommend to people that they take the path that I took, because there were certainly some odd stutter steps and digressions along my route. That said, I do indeed have some biases and thoughts about how a motivated, talented IT professional can position herself or himself for a top management role in IT.

  • Get broad. Strive to understand ALL of IT: development, quality assurance, operations, project management, architecture, user experience, PC help issues. And, of course, there’s no better way to understand those areas than to do some kind of rotation into each and every one of them, formally or informally. Diversify yourself. Doing so fully may require moving companies. One of my favorite Tom Peters’ quotes is “‘Repot’ yourself every ten years.” With respect to high tech, it needs to be more frequently than that.

  • Get away. (Meaning, get away from relying on the technology knowledge that, in essence, limits and pigeonholes you today). Chances are, you’re an expert in one or more technologies, the “go to” guy or gal, the one who can run rings around everyone else technically in that area. Get ready to leave it behind, at least as the core of your day.
  • Get mentored. Figure out who knows more than you do, higher up the chain. Not only does this foster an always-nice-to-have sense of humility, it’s also a useful exercise for confronting your gaps and figuring out how other people have filled their own similar gaps. Find someone. Ask for advice, feedback, tips on next steps.
  • Get religion. So to speak, of course. Absorb the basic truth that IT itself needs to be the main “service-oriented architecture”, metaphorically speaking. That’s service in a business sense, to the rest of the organization. This obvious and incontrovertible fact seems to be lost on at least half of the IT people I’ve known.
  • Get involved in customer-related and business-related projects. Interface with internal users in formal and informal ways. Get to know their concerns, their problems, their way of looking at things.
  • Get savvy, financially: A long time ago, I read a magnificent slim volume, now sadly out of print, called Understanding a Company’s Finances: A Graphic Approach, by W. R. Purcell, and received a college course’s equivalent of an education in finance. If you also have gaps in this area, find the equivalent(see below for some ideas), and study up. Follow your company’s communications on financial results; read the annual reports and regular SEC filings.
  • Get the word out. Communication as an ingrained ethic is one of the largest gaps, quite typically, in IT, and you’ll need to get good (and frequent) at it. “Always be publishable”: I learned this marvelous apothegm from someone who worked for me. By this, he meant always have readily at hand the basic elements (as in the Five Pillars, actually) that show how things are going, so that you could (for example) generate a status report at the drop of a hat.
  • Get altruistic: Focus on your own people’s career growth. It’ll come back around. Thinking about others benefits you.
  • Keep up technically. It’s a fire hose out there, trained at your eyeball. Pick and choose the key technologies, and get more than a dilettante’s familiarity with them. Yes, I realize that this seems to contradict the “get away” point above. Live with it. Part of ascending to the CIO/CTO role will entail exactly that kind of ambiguity in your life.


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