Can a CIO be successful without IT experience? Define your terms!

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.

So again, my answer: to be a good CIO you don’t need to know, necessarily or specifically, what a left outer join is, or be able to reel off the seven layers of the OSI network protocol stack. You don’t need to know, necessarily or specifically, the difference between Java and JavaScript or to be able to have your way in either vi or emacs.  But, you’d better understand deeply the basic roles that IT elements play, how processes fit together to provide business value, and where the pitfalls may lie as your team goes about that fitting together.  You’d better be in position not to be easily swayed by a slick vendor or even a convincing pitch from one of your senior lieutenants; part of your job is to know when to push back. And that judgment comes from experience, not from some innate abstract leadership ability alone.

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.”

Lagniappe:

Comments

  1. Déjà vu with my comments too – great post.

    Will technical CIOs exist in a few years?

  2. I assume you mean “purely technical CIOs”? Well, the underlying point of my post, and of many other observations on this topic across the links I include at the end, is that they don’t really exist now. At least they don’t in terms of the success criteria that I outlined. Technical ability alone doesn’t get you there. And even if you come in with a great technical background, very little of what makes the job tick, and you succcessful, has anything to do with hands-on technology per se.

    Thanks for commenting, Bill!

  3. Successful CIOs – those who are able to help impact business results – must have IT experience, but not necessarily be “deep” technologists. I argue this point (apparently, not too convincingly :) ) in the posts Peter links to above.

    My experiences are that those who haven’t worked IN an IT organization, don’t have a good enough understanding of the business function, its approaches, cultural quirks, levers, etc. I think significant IT experience, even during formative professional years, add a lot of value later in a CIOs career as issues around TCO, uptime, performance, project delays, the value of testing/QA, etc make so much more sense. These are critical, core experiences that can’t be gained otherwise.

    -Chris

  4. We’re in absolute agreement, Chris! I didn’t say that my list of links represented faulty thinking across the board; in your case, I agree completely with your sentiments as expressed above. There’s nothing like being knee-deep in the messiness of building, deploying, and supporting multiple systems, over a reasonably long period of time, to give a person insight into the subtle-but-important aspects of the IT function. Those who think it’s just about technology usually haven’t actually DONE it.

  5. Your emphasis on pushback, Peter, is important and well taken. Your vendors, senior lieutenants, consultants, tech teams, and board members may all have agendas other than delivering business value. They have reasons–often very good ones–for pushing a particular approach or for prioritizing some specific problem. But your agenda might not be their agenda, and your vantage point is certainly a different one.

  6. The reality is that the CIO who has been successful at engaging the business and who sees business benefit is not at risk. The CIO who has built an expensive cost center based empire is finding survival difficult.

    Business is sick of the tired old “pipe dreams” about ROI and payback.

    Too often CIOs do not understand how to integrate IT operations INTO the business. The successful CIO of tomorrow MUST, and I mean ABSOLUTELY MUST integrate their IT organizations into and become part of the extended business operations.

    For more info on how TOMORROW’s SUCCESSFUL CIO will finally make it please see this four part series starting here:

    What is the Proper Relationship for the CIO, CEO, and CFO?
    http://www.r3now.com/what-is-the-proper-relationship-for-the-cio-ceo-and-cfo

    The bottom of that page has links and executive summaries of each of the posts.

    Bill Wood – President
    R3Now Consulting @ R3Now.com
    SAP from the Customer Point of View

  7. While I applaud your search for the “essence of a great CIO” I must say that often – as in beauty – it is subjective and in the eye of the beholder. A CIO can be fantastic in one context but then unable to peform in another.

    Three great qualities I often see in successful CIOs, however, are scepticism, the ability to ask great questions and, most importantly, a sense of humour.

  8. Mark, thanks for your excellent point on the possible varying agendas of a CIO’s lieutenants, vendors, etc. It’s another great reason for rejecting the notion that all an inexperienced CIO needs is a great team. In truth, having a great team might mask, for a while, many of the ill effects caused by an inexperienced leader, but sooner or later those effects will hit. The leader is there for a reason.

  9. arindam chattopadhyay says:

    As per me CIO has two major roles.

    1. Operational excellence- CIO should able to deliver business requirements within schedule and budget. Cost optimization and reuse of the components is must. This requires IT/Technical skill. I think the skill to learn fast is a Must Have skill. I was a very good C++ programmer but did not code for last 10 years. On the other hand , I need to learn lot about IT/IS infrastructure while preparing a business case for BCP for RCOM . I think my technical background helped me a lot in learning those technology.

    2. Second role is helping and working with business to create a proper enterprise architecture. In this role CIO should help CEO and business leaders in continuous service improvements. This is a role of taking a strategic initiatives and decision. This is all about Risk management most efficiently. CIO also need to be well connected to overcome all political hurdles.

    CIO can come from any background. S/he should able to meet business requirements with less budget and quicker TTM and that requires technical understanding.

  10. Machteld Meijer says:

    I only found your column today. I agree that definitions are very important. For instance: what is IT? In our country it stands for “software and hardware”, not for all of the activities a business needs to perform to be able to define what information they need to support their business.
    I see many organizations (I don’t mean IT organizations but Business / Governmental) where the CIO is the head of the IT-department. Therefore the head of (one of) the service providers to the business. I think that is not the best solution. The CIO has to be part of the business organization and has to decide on which information the business really needs and how to obtain that.
    Does he need to have a technical background? No. Does he have to have IT experience? Not in the sense of having worked within IT. Yes in the sense of having worked with IT and having participated in large IT projects from the demand side point of view. Supported by more technical skilled staff I am sure he can make good decisions. There it comes to the main qualification he should have: being prepared to listen to more technical people, not being priggish, being able to handle political sensitive situations, being able to handle much information, being able to communicate on many levels and of course knowing very much of the business process and the business needs.

  11. Thanks for commenting, Machteld. Not sure whether you and I fully agree or disagree, though! Your last sentence is inarguable, to my mind, but I also fall more in the camp, as expressed above in a comment from Chris Curran, that “those who haven’t worked IN an IT organization, don’t have a good enough understanding of the business function, its approaches, cultural quirks, levers, etc.” There can indeed be outliers, but to my mind those are extremely unusual.

    I also reject (as stated in my post) the not uncommon notion that all a CIO needs is a technically skilled team. As I wrote: “You’d better be in position not to be easily swayed by a slick vendor or even a convincing pitch from one of your senior lieutenants; part of your job is to know when to push back.”

  12. Machteld Meijer says:

    Thanks for your reaction.

    The sentence you quote from Chris Curran is a sentence I possibly don’t understand correctly: “those who haven’t worked IN an IT organization, don’t have a good enough understanding of the business function, its approaches, cultural quirks, levers, etc.”

    My idea is that those who have ONLY worked IN an IT organization only have a very small understanding of the business function.
    Because this is completely contrary to your opinion and we agree on many other things, maybe the cause of this apparent different point of view arises from giving another meaning to “the business function” (back on the definition issue again :) ) .
    I consider the Business function to be the organization or function IT provides services to. To me it is NOT the IT organization/business function.
    It seems to me that you both are talking about the IT business? Otherwise I really can’t understand the quoted statement.

  13. Machteld Meijer says:

    Peter, I just read the article of Chris you linked to.
    It states:
    ” Can a CIO be truly successful in BOTH leading his or her organization in the use of IT and leading the IT organization required to make it all happen without any experience working in the IT function itself?”
    To me “leading the IT organization” doesn’t have to or even shouldn’t be part of the CIO role. Maybe our different points of view mentioned in the reaction above this one arise from this as well?

  14. Hello again Machteld,
    It may very well be that the disconnect here, such as it is, stems from different concepts/definitions of what both Chris and I are obviously thinking of when we say “IT” and talk about how that leads to understanding of business functions.

    Chris and I (if I may be so bold as to speak for him) tend to see IT as much broader than just “software and hardware”, and much broader than just as the “service provider to the rest of the business.” It sounds like you fall along those lines as well, but that many companies with which you’re familiar tend to feature “the CIO [as] the head of the IT-department. Therefore the head of (one of) the service providers to the business”. I’m glad to hear that you don’t think this narrow definition/role is optimal, because I certainly agree with your view there. In fact, most companies that I’m familiar with, certainly in the last decade or so, feature the CIO not as just the hardware/software owner, but actually as the focal point or “hub” of lots of mission-critical, business-oriented activity across all business units. So that’s what the “IT organization” means in my/our parlance, and I think it’s now actually the common use of the term (see the books that I’ve recently reviewed on my blog, or any of the books with “IT” in the title in my “Recommended Reading” section as well).

    It’s a fairly common observation that the head of marketing in an organization won’t necessarily have much (any) insight into the problems of another business area such as customer care or even sales, but that a business technology-oriented CIO absolutely has to understand all those and more to be effective. And, (this is my underlying point), he/she usually cannot “just” be business-area-oriented in background, but has to understand and lead the way to how technology can be leveraged (and, often, standardized and made cost-efficient) across those business units. In any case, the CIO role is a lot more than just owning hardware and software.

    So the CIO (or CTO, depending on the title: see my several posts on the title issue) does in fact “lead the IT organization”, but that organization has a broader business role, generally speaking, than you were assuming or have perhaps witnessed. Many people who work in IT, in my experience, tend to become broad-based experts in all sorts of business areas, from financials to inventory to manufacturing to customer care to sales. Only a very small and narrow slice of IT relates to things like network management or deployment of the latest Windows patch.

  15. Machteld Meijer says:

    You’re probably right Peter. That to the both of us IT has a different scope.

    IT is, literally spoken, Information Technology. Therefore to us (The Dutch) IT does not include the non automated provision of information ( the card-index boxes, the paper archives, the procedures to gather information, and making sure to pose the right questions to IT etc.).
    IT is supply, managing information on behalf of the business (where a CIO should be reponsible for) is demand.

    Check our paper on ITIL and BiSL:
    http://www.best-management-practice.com/gempdf/BMP_ITIL_V3_and_BiSL_Sound_Guidance.pdf

    I have often witnessed the CIO role to be mainly IT (technology, hardware, software, thinking from a supply point of view), however I think the CIO should be competent in business knowledge and IT knowledge is much less important. We are trying to help the world to find out that much may be gained from that point of view.

  16. Interesting little discussion between you (Peter) and Machteld. It got me thinking about what the responsibilities of a CIO are or should be. Surely (as you also seem to think) not just to fulfil a reactive role as ‘service provider to the business’ but to stimulate and challenge business directors with ideas about how information (technology) can be used to improve and even innovate the business function.
    Now the question whether the CIO’s scope is ‘just’ information technology or also the use of information (with or without technological support). Say employees in a department aren’t serving their clients well because they’re sloppy in recording transactions and therefore can’t find the client history when a client calls. Does the CIO concern herself (let’s talk about a female CIO for a change, maybe that’ll help) with the quality of the procedures and the training and attitude of the employees? And the topic of data ownership? Or can she discharge herself of her responsibilities by offering to provide a CRM application, leaving the manager of the department to deal with the fuzzy stuff?
    I’m convinced that organizations can get more out of their investments in IT by improving their IT service consumption capabilities as well as IT service provision (the traditional IT Department).
    So I’m an advocate for CIO’s with bifocal spectacles: IT Supply and Information Consumption. And commensurate KPI’s ;-)

  17. Agreed. I think that lots of institutions have suffered from an overfocus of the CIO on mere technology and on being simply a service provider. Unfortunately, since that part of things has often been handled so badly — system outages, poor service to internal users, lack of alignment with business objectives — the reaction has often been to stick IT in a corner and pull them out of anything broader in terms of scope. So it’s a vicious cycle.

    The answer, though, as I argue in numerous posts, is not to pull the CIO out of being a service provider altogether (which I understand is not what you’re arguing, but is frequently argued these days as a response to the above dilemma). Someone at an executive level has to competently deal with both the nuts-and-bolts of technology delivery AND the broader aspects of organizational and architectural design to promote the best use of information. What happens today, in the above “vicious cycle” scenario, is a little like the CIO being the person in the pit stop at the Indy 500 race: imagine the driver snarling at them, “you’re just here to change my tires; don’t tell me how to drive!” It’s limiting to both the CIO and the organization to confine their involvement to the purely technical, and doing so tends to predetermine just who ascends to those roles in terms of skill set. Vicious cycle, again.

    So I agree that many/most organizations would benefit from the involvement you propose here (while noting, by the way, that “providing a CRM application” ALWAYS consists of way more than just installing the software, no matter how you slice it). The more forward-thinking organizations, which have empowered and broadened the role of their CIOs, already do.

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