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CIO: A Vanishing Breed?

Seven years ago I penned an article for Law Technology News entitled “Will CIOs Matter?” I was approached by the editors because I was moving a number of mission critical applications to the cloud at the time. Given the coming ubiquity of cloud apps and managed services and the opportunity it presented companies to ditch data centers and put IT in the hands of business units, I wondered what role, if any, the CIO would play.

Little did I know I was planning my own demise.

A year ago my CIO position was eliminated.  One year and nearly 600 resumes later, I remain unemployed.

At the stratosphere level for companies with thousands of global employees, the CIO position is fairly safe because the job description remains relatively the same; strategic IT planning, vendor and staff management, budgeting, etc.  

But filter down to small and mid-sized companies and, in my opinion (and experience) the role of the CIO is a confused one.

In my daily trolling of job opportunities the best one I found was a position as CIO where I possessed all the requisite requirements, except one.  The dealbreaker. The CIO needed to be able to operate a forklift on the shop floor. Masters degree? Check. Twenty-five years’ experience? Check. But you can’t drive a forklift? Sorry mate, you’re not qualified.

Virtually every vendor, hardware and software, offers some cloud solution. Many are offering only cloud solutions that ultimately push customers out of their own data centers. Therein lies some of the confusion over the CIO role and job description. Small and mid-size companies have always operated with lean IT staffs, and they are getting leaner.

The CIO is now expected to know Active Directory, fix printers, build VMWare devices, and, apparently, drive forklifts.

And that is not the definition of a CIO. But let’s not get hung up on titles. It’s not the definition of IT Director, or CTO either.  We are seeing the perception of the CIO revert back to how well you did when you started your career on the Help Desk.

Alas, it wasn’t always that way.  Nearly two years ago, Thorton May wrote in his Evolution of the CIO: The Real Story for Computerworld that the CIO position started with William Synnott, vice president of data processing at Bank of Boston in 1981. Synnott was the first (or at least among the first) to argue that IT was a strategic endeavor, not just an economic one, and the executive in charge of strategy was the Chief Information Officer.  

Flash forward to 2006 and IBM’s CIO Leadership Forum. CEO Sam Palmisano challenged 100 CIOs to look forward, suggesting that they were at a crossroads of digital network revolution and global integration. He essentially redefined the position as Chief Innovation Officer.

All well and good for the stratosphere. Left behind are those small and medium sized organizations.  Are we visionaries?  Strategists?  Fork lift drivers?

I have noticed that certifications are now the rage for CIOs.  I started my career with a Wang VS system (rest its soul). I’ve seen the rise and fall of Novell, the advent of Windows, the cloud and AI. I’ve managed countless system upgrades. They were all completed on time and under budget – without those additional certifications.

That’s not to denigrate certifications or those holding them. They can certainly be quite valuable. They can also indicate that you passed the test, but may not possess the critical thinking ability to change strategy on the fly, effectively communicate with users, customers, and senior management. Those soft skills, alas, seem to be less in demand.

What’s a CIO to do?

Think about changing focus. The CISO position seems to be rock solid. You will need a number of certifications to be considered, but opportunity abounds in keeping barbarians at the gate.

Unless…..you’re old. I turned 60 recently. All the certifications in the world won’t erase that, and I can personally attest to the robust existence of ageism in our business. Again, not so much at the stratosphere level. A dear friend recently retired from IBM and was promptly solicited by the former governor of North Carolina to become CIO. He left that position when the governor decided not to run again, and returned to the golf course where he was immediately approached by Lenovo to become their CISO.  He’s in his 70s.

“What about consulting?” you may be ask… If you’ve already done some consulting, then it may be a possible career path. If not, few consultancies will even give you consideration. Of course you can try striking out on your own, but that takes time and money to build a clientele. Besides that, small and mid-size businesses aren’t looking for consultants; they are looking for people to install servers and fix printers.

So, what advice can I give present and former CIOs?

Thornton May sees three major paths for the CIO of the future: 

  1. Conversation Architect: CIOs drive the strategic conversation by focusing on priorities, sequencing, and the theory of victory.  
  2. Digital Scorekeeper: Admittedly, a departure for CIOs.  In this role, the CIO champions the customer, who, after all, we very rarely touch, via the tonnage of data that the position already stewards.  
  3. Microcredential Archivist: Working with HR, the CIO will create a system to focus on very specific skill sets, even more specific than degrees or certifications

My advice?  I’m tempted to heed the advice of the great Bluto Blutarski of Animal House:  “Start drinking heavily.”

I’m only partially kidding. Invest wisely, downsize. Winter is coming.

And robots. The freaking robots are coming! But more on that next time…


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