Do you want to be a CIO?

As an aspiring technology leader, there are things you need to learn to do early in your career and a few things to avoid.  Here are some to consider as you move up in your career:

Skills to Master

  • Learn to pay your dues – IT is not a get rich quick career. You need to spend the time learning your craft.  Most colleges teach the vocabulary of IT but not the business aspect, not really.  Corporate applications and infrastructures are much more complex than anything you’ve encountered in college.  It will take time to understand them.  Learn how be patient and work for advancement.  Do not expect it.
  • Plan your career – You cannot “happen upon” a CIO role. If you have your goal set on becoming a CIO, then plan for it.  You cannot stay safe and sound in your area of technology: application development, Network design, etc.  Work in all areas.  Step out of your comfort zone.  IT is too vast of a field.  You cannot advance to be an expert in everything, however, to be a CIO means you have a working knowledge of everything.  I took more than 1 “drop back” to pursue a skill that I needed.  I changed industries several times from Manufacturing to Financial to Public Utilities.  I also jumped from the in-house side of IT to a Professional Services side for 8 years to learn IT from the other side of the Statement of Work.  If you do not know which skills you need, find a mentor.  Take responsibility for your success.
  • Find a Way – Most in-house IT managers and CIO have the “say no” mentality. “I do not have the resources for any more projects.”  My predecessor used to keep a list of the 10 current projects on his desk and when something new was requested he would respond “And which of these important projects should I cancel so I can address your stupid request?”    The years I spend in a Professional Services company taught me to find a way to take on and successfully deliver every opportunity.  That is what impresses the Sr. Leadership team.  Saying no should be the exception not the rule.
  • Never stop learning – I started as a developer (COBOL and FORTRAN, yeah, I’m old) and those were the last development languages I used. But you can’t stop learning.  I managed teams that developed in JAVA, HTML, Magento, .NET, and PHP.  Networks were not invented when I started supporting PCs back in the early 80s, neither was the Internet.  But I managed teams that supported complex, global networks.  I don’t have to personally support them, but I had to staff, budget and justify them as CIO.  Read everything.  Keep learning.
  • Networking – It is all about the network. Get involved in professional organizations.  Attend networking events.   Meet people.  Join LinkedIn and minimize time wasters like Facebook, Twitter, and SnapChat.  If you ask me any question about anything in IT my answer would be “If I don’t know the answer, I know someone who does.”  Stay in touch with your network.  Email them.  If you see the perfect job for someone on a job board, send them a referral.  Be active partners.  Collaborate and synergize.
  • Keep a Sense of Humor – No one understands IT or IT people. That’s ok.  Other departments don’t always get their requests completed as soon as they want.  There will be “attacks”.  Don’t take them personally.  Users get frustrated.    Keep a sense of humor.  Remember the time they called and asked if the Firewall had issues because they smelled something burning.  I am going to write a book about the funny Helpdesk requests I received over my 40 years in IT.  Diffuse tense meeting with humor.  Keep it light.  Keep things in perspective.

Mistakes to avoid

  • Expecting too much, too soon – At the beginning of my career, I asked for too much responsibility too soon. Fast-track advancement is a good thing.  Taking on a project, prematurely, and failing is much worse than doing nothing.  Slow down.  Pay your dues.  Learn from those more experienced than you and be open to criticism.
  • Depending too much on me – Learning to delegate is an art and a science, but more an art. I tried to do it all myself when I first became a manager.  It was a struggle.  Learn to delegate and learn how to delegate.  Learning to delegate means you have other do the work so more can get done quickly and correctly, and you are freed for more strategic activities.  Learning how to delegate means you get the people that are doing the work to think it was their idea.  And the skill of delegation is not just for work.  It helps to get your kids to help around the house and friends to help with projects.
  • Eliminate Language Barriers – As you move up into a CIO position, the most important role you serve is that of Executive Communicator. I did not do a very good job of this at first.  It was obvious to me that we needed a new hyper-converged infrastructure with a hypervisor and virtualized SAN.  Why are they fighting with me?  It was because they understood none of those words.  I might as well have asked for a DeLorean and a flux capacitor.  My job was to translate tech-speak into corp-speak and I failed.   Make technology understandable.  Use business terms and learn their jargon.  Provide an ROI for every project.  Manage Executive Expectation by keeping them informed about projects, budget, and issues.  They need you, but you need them more to approve funding and support your initiatives.
  • Deliver bad news early and often – Your life as a CIO will go much easier if your Executives hear any bad news, and there will be bad news, from you. The natural response to bad news (failed servers, late project deliverables, or application problems) is to “fix it before anyone finds out”.  That never works.  Come clean as soon as a problem is identified.  Inform the Executive team that an incident has occurred, IT is on it, and the issue will be remediated by end of the day, or whenever.  When I started taking the “IT Transparency” approach, the response I got back was “Oh, OK. Thanks.  Glad you’re on it.  Let me know how it’s going.”


Have any comments?  Try some of these strategies and let me know how they worked.  Post them to me at  Click the link below.