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.