Information Technology

Would I Be a Good Chief Information Officer? [Career Path, Skills + Requirements]

Would I Be a Good Chief Information Officer? [Career Path, Skills + Requirements]
The CIO manages internal computer systems and infrastructure and for streamlining business operations. They work closely with all other C-suite team members, especially the chief technology officer. Image from Unsplash
Lucy Davies profile
Lucy Davies March 1, 2021

The CIO role represents the pinnacle of a career in information technology and management. What would it take to put you in this C-suite position? Read on to find out.

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Every industry in the world—even sectors that functioned in an analog capacity for generations—now relies on technology. This explosive shift to digital dependence, only decades old, is driving a growing need for fluency in information technology at the highest levels of leadership. Top jobs are adjusting quickly to changing expectations.

Developing a thorough short-and long-term IT strategy is critical to any modern company, organization, or institution’s success. The executive who oversees this process is the chief information officer (CIO).

The job description and expectations of a CIO have evolved in step with innovation in business technology. In the 1970s and 1980s, a top IT professional helped businesses use mainframe computers and maintain databases; they weren’t typically involved in leadership or business strategy. If an organization had a C-level IT leader, that role had a more exclusively technical focus on internal maintenance of hardware, information systems, and communication networks.

Decades later, with explosive growth and expansion of the internet, big data, cloud computing, and data analytics—along with the critical need for cyber security—the technical details typically fall into the lap of the chief technology officer (CTO), while the role of the CIO has shifted from operations to a more strategic position. The contemporary CIO is responsible not just for implementing processes and internal operations but also for predicting the future of computer technology and directing a growing company’s efforts to maintain its competitive advantage.

Do you have what it takes to become a chief information officer? We address that question in this article as we discuss:

  • What is a chief information officer?
  • How much does a chief information officer make?
  • How to become a chief information officer
  • Would you be a good chief information officer?
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What is a chief information officer?

A chief information officer (CIO) is the most senior corporate executive in charge of computer systems, business strategy, and the development and implementation of information technology. This C-suite seat focuses on research, infrastructure, and the usability of information systems.

This role can be found in all sectors: business, government, and charitable and non-profit organizations. In a military organization, the chief information officer would report directly to the commanding officer. In the business world, the CIO reports to either the chief executive officer (CEO), chief operating officer (COO) or chief financial officer (CFO).

Skills

A successful chief information officer needs a broad range of technological and business skills. Both are essential in this role.

The CIO procures computer systems and data that help other members of the C-suite do their jobs effectively. Additionally, the CIO manages the significant risks of acquiring digital information and new technologies. To do this, they must maintain a balance between monitoring the rise of cutting-edge technology and building a solid platform for IT systems that allows for agility and digital change. An effective CIO knows that avoiding risk while innovating is impossible but that an agile company must learn to deal with both. Successful planning and deep knowledge of infrastructure can help not only avoid potential disaster but also limit damage and aid in recovery when it occurs.

Leading through change is key to the success of a chief executive in IT; the chief information officer should lead the charge. The role of the CIO relies on an increasingly complicated interface. As a result, the need for building and maintaining an effective IT team has become more crucial and complex. So too has the need to both motivate and focus IT management. Recruiting and building a strong, motivated team is a critical foundation for business and is an essential component of a CIO’s infrastructure. Bridging the gap between professionals on and off the IT team requires high-level interpersonal and communication skills. This means implementing upskill and reskill programs and paying close attention to diversity and inclusion efforts.

A CIO should remain more approachable than others in the C-suite. An ability to communicate is essential, because the CIO drives digital literacy in the company and collaborates regularly with both colleagues and business partners. The CIO must also serve as a liaison between executives and other branches of the firm; this requires understanding how a company works from top to bottom. The job requires analytical skills, technical expertise, and the ability to persuade.

Of course, controlling cost is another vial responsibility of any executive officer. Budgeting for IT often splits 80 percent on operations and 20 percent on innovation, but a good CIO is concerned not just with keeping the lights on but also planning for the future. Tech leaders should be able to run IT effectively and change IT when necessary. This may include balancing risk in innovation against the concerns of other members of the C-suite, including the chief financial officer and the company’s CEO.

What is the difference between a chief technology officer and a chief information officer? While both IT leaders may be found in a larger tech company, the CTO remains more outwardly focused on creating new technology to sell to customers. In contrast, the CIO position manages internal computer systems and infrastructure and for streamlining business operations.

Duties

The balance found in the challenging and varied CIO roles results in a well-oiled machine, with business innovation and technology working together. Daunting, right? But if you have a head for business and the right skill set, chief information officer might sit just right as the job title that fits you best.

So, what does a CIO do? They:

  • Collaborate with vendors to provide solid IT strategy and information security
  • Lead technology strategy in concert with other C-suite peers
  • Link technology to business strategy
  • Manage technology infrastructure to blend business goals with business technology
  • Oversee budgeting and operations within the IT department
  • Streamline business processes to maintain a competitive advantage
  • Supervise the IT director and manage IT alongside the cybersecurity team
  • Recruit and manage the IT team
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“I’m Interested in Information Technology!”

I.T. encompasses a vast spectrum of systems and applications. They include common networks most of us use every day, such as telephone and point-of-sale systems. At the other end of the spectrum are comparatively obscure, poorly understood systems like blockchain, used in cryptocurrencies and other transactions. In between lie background systems such as databases and inventory management, crucial to businesses, corporations, and government agencies. (source)

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the computer and information technology job market should grow by 15 percent between 2021 and 2031, creating more than 682,000 new jobs. Earning a Master of Science in Information Technology builds skill sets in critical areas that include cloud computing, algorithms, big data, business intelligence, cybersecurity, data science, machine learning, and IT management, among others. (source)

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How much does a chief information officer make?

CIOs are the brains behind a company’s technology framework, and the position carries both enormous responsibility and potential for growth. On average, CIOs earn a salary of $157,557 per year, plus another $63,000 in bonuses, profit sharing and commissions. There is a range of earnings for top level executives.

How to become a chief information officer

So is moving up to the C-suite a feasible career path for you to pursue? First, you should outline your experience, your options, and your goals. Do you have a decade or more experience to bring to the table? Do you have the time and energy to add a master’s degree to your resume? Do you have the leadership and management skills that it takes to manage growth and innovation with a successful team?

Knowing your budget, your timeframe, and your goals will contribute to successful planning for your future. The opportunity for success is there as the US Bureau of Labor Statistics unsurprisingly predicts continued growth in the industry. According to the BLS, “computer and information technology occupations are projected to grow 11 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations.”

So let’s outline expectations for education, certifications, skills, and experience.

Education

Candidates for CIO need a solid background in both business and information systems. The general requirement is for a bachelor’s degree in a related field like database administration, computer information systems, IT management or computer science, coupled with a Master of Business Administration, a master’s in information technology, or a Master of Science in Management. Any of these degrees provide a foundation for the business side of budgeting, recruiting, and development and the tools for building innovative ideas in technology.

You may need to decide between similar degrees. Is the best path a master’s in computer science or information systems? Depending on your industry and your own focus, the right choice may be obvious or may take some serious research.

If you do plan to pursue a master’s degree, you should expect to spend around two years studying full-time, or three to five years if you attend part-time while you continue to work. Consider online study, which provides a rigorous program coupled with increased flexibility. The University of Tulsa, for one, offers a Master of Science (MS) in Cyber Security online. Similarly, the University of Washington offers both a residential and an online option for their Master of Science in Information Management (MSIM).

Certifications

For a leg up in a technology management position, and for those with an eye on moving up in the industry, several certifications can help fill out your resume.

CIO.com lists 15 of the top management certifications. They include:

Top skills: strategic, financial, interpersonal

The skills needed for the CIO spot focus on IT strategy, business acumen, and soft skills. To be a successful CIO, you should be able to move comfortably between all of them. An effective CIO is a:

  • Authority in communication and leadership
  • Budget strategist, fitting IT into the revenue stream
  • Change leader in strategic direction, internal processes, and organizational structuring
  • Expert in computer science andIT
  • Manager for both tech and employees, pivoting from business strategy to personnel
  • Pioneer in digital transformation with planning and infrastructure

Experience

More than anything, you need years of experience to qualify for the CIO position. If you have spent a decade or more working in information technology and resource management, with a few years at the executive level, you are in a solid position to move ahead.

The more experience, the better. It’s best to have acquired strategic planning, leadership, and change management skills along the way. Remember that the chief information officer functions at the highest level of leadership, where communication and interpersonal skills are as necessary as those in tech.

You may also want to consider focusing on moving up in your current company rather than moving on to another, as internal candidates tend to be chosen twice as often over external candidates. The experience and focus you can gain in a steady climb may serve you better than moving around the market. Each company offers a different path and set of opportunities. Only you can determine your strategy for advancement.

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Would you be a good chief information officer?

With the continued growth and influence of technology in business, there will be many new paths to follow to further your career. The gulf between technical and executive teams is best bridged by a CIO with experience and deep knowledge of both worlds, who can implement technology to derive the most value from equipment, personnel, and investments through strategic planning. Your own experience, skill set, and current position will give you the starting point, but how you proceed depends on your goals and the calculations about the financial investment you’ll need to make to further your degree.

If you have your heart and mind set on that next step up, make a list of your strongest skills and qualities. Are you comfortable moving between people management and systems management? Are you able to see the infrastructure changes your business will need going forward and the risks involved? Are you willing to take on the challenges of innovation and implementation of computer systems and digital transformation as it continues to evolve? If you can see your goals and skills coming together in these complex ways, it might be time to make that investment in yourself and move forward with your career.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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