Yes, it’s déjà vu: certain topics crop up again and again on IT-related blogs. The age-old question: does a CIO really need to have IT experience? I’ve touched upon this before, here and here, but it’s time for a full column covering the standard arguments posed in this debate.
I’ve gone through every article I can find on this topic (most of these are listed at the end of this post), read all the associated comments, and culled out the arguments that are typically cited in support of a CIO’s ability to be successful without IT experience. These are:
- A non-technical CIO can surround himself with a capable team who can support him in all technical matters
- It’s the ability to lead that’s really needed, whereby the issue of technical capabilities becomes secondary
- After all, there are some successful business CIOs without technical background
- Even supremely technical CIOs have been known to fail
- Considering today’s rapid pace of change, past IT experience can be a hindrance to many CIOs today as often as it is a help: that experience can make a CIO “unduly resistant to the possibilities.”
As I looked at these arguments, though, I found them all strangely uncompelling. I felt truly puzzled: how could anyone argue vehemently in favor of a lack of experience as a job qualifier, for anything? But as I thought about it, I realized it’s a matter of basic definitions. As in so many debates, this topic has been seriously hampered by many parties failing to define clearly the basic terms: what does “IT experience” or “technical” mean, and what does it mean for a CIO to “be successful”? Without a clear and common understanding of what is meant by those phrases, advocates on both sides tend to drift into “straw man” postulates, where they reach a strong and usually quite self-righteous position based on divergent definitions.
Let’s look at what could be meant by “does a CIO need IT experience”, or, as it’s sometimes phrased, “does a CIO need to have a technical background.” These two things are usually conflated, but they are not the same. “Technical background” seems to usually mean academic qualifications: e.g., a Ph.D. in computer science, or at the very least, deep, low-level understanding of bits, bytes, protocols, APIs, etc. “IT experience”, on the other hand, may be garnered through years of working on either the development or operations side of information technology, and may have involved relatively little purely technical activity. It’s easy for any given individual to have a great deal of one and not the other. But it should be noted that having more of the first (technical skills) doesn’t substantially improve your ability to cope with CIO-level issues, while having more of the other (IT experience) most certainly does.
What about the notion of a CIO being “successful”? What does that mean? Length of tenure in the position (not getting fired)? That seems like a dubious yardstick. Almost any industry veteran is aware of instances where highly competent CIOs have been let go due to political shifts within a company (e.g., advent of a new CEO), or retained for similar reasons despite questionable performance. Does it mean, perhaps, having measurable achievements? These too often depend on perceptions and political whims: a CIO can, for example, “successfully” roll out a system which works exactly as designed but fails to deliver hoped-for benefits.
A more meaningful definition of success, to my mind, is when a CIO can mobilize both his team and the company at large to obtain measurable value from the investments it is making in technology, and, moreover, gets that team demonstrably exercising continuous improvement in its processes and products. CIO success is not just about sticking around in the position; it’s not just about rolling out systems and supporting an infrastructure. It’s the impact on company results that matters.
If a given debate on a CIO’s necessary background assumes one set of definitions for these key facets, it’s easy to have the resulting arguments and conclusions dismissed out of hand by people who hold different definitions. And often, participants in the debate don’t even recognize the root of their disagreement: that they’re using the same terms for quite different situations. In reality, they may agree more than they differ.
A CIO must have a good amount of IT experience (not necessarily specific technical skills) to be successful.
So using the definitions that I think are meaningful, as outlined above, my answer is that a CIO must have a good amount of IT experience (not necessarily specific technical skills) to be successful. (Note that citing that there exist occasional anecdotal exceptions to this, aside from depending on a usually unprovided definition of “success”, may be interesting but isn’t necessarily useful; Steve Jobs and Bill Gates both dropped out of college and still achieved prominence and prosperity, but they’re not examples one would logically use to formulate a general rule about the path to becoming CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation).
Being a CTO/CIO is not about technology — I’ve stated that consistently, starting with my very first blog post. It is, however, about leadership and experience. The notion of an individual able to provide outstanding leadership but lacking a solid foundation of related experience doesn’t fly well in any situation or arena I’ve ever seen. Time and again, I’ve gone into turnaround situations at companies where IT matters have been completely bungled by having no CTO/CIO or otherwise inexperienced IT decision-making. Bart Perkins’ recent excellent piece points out numerous specifics of what happens when there’s no CIO at all: business unit-centric decisions, standardization impasse, lack of new enterprise applications due to business unit parochialism, factionalism, and decreased economies of scale. I’d extend that: many if not all of those same situations tend to occur even with a CIO on board, if that person is inexperienced and thus unaware of these IT-specific pitfalls.
After all, IT changes radically every few years, and specific technical knowledge is of fleeting value in and of itself. Only actual work experience, grappling with juggling priorities, making tradeoffs, and satisfying multiple constituencies, tends to teach people how to maximize the value from IT-related investments made by the company. And there aren’t any true shortcuts. Again, the saying applies that I’ve cited here before: “good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.”
- Nick Lansley, “Are the best CIOs from non-technical backgrounds?”
- Arun Gupta, “Are the best CIOs from non-technical backgrounds?”
- Chris Curran, “Can a CIO be Successful Without IT Experience?”
- Kate Bulkley, “Will your next CIO be a non-techie?”
- Scott Wilson, Can a CIO be successful without IT experience?
- Michael Fisher, “How Technical Should The CTO Be?”
- Richard Hunter and George Westerman, “Should Your Next Job Be CIO?”
- Chris Curran, “CIO Background Check: IT Experience Mandatory?”
- Thomas Pelkmann, “CIOs müssen keine Ahnung von IT haben” (in German)
- Bart Perkins, “The Fortune 500’s disappearing CIOs”
- John Julius Sviolka, “The #CIO: The duck billed platypus of the C-suite”
- Sharon D’Souza, “CIO career query: Does your background make or break it?”