Help Wanted: Tech-Savvy CIO

Opinion: Having an MBA is helpful if you're an IT manager or CIO, but having some techie knowledge is crucial.

In recent years, theres been a big push among IT managers to become more business-savvy. An increasing number of senior IT managers and CIOs are taking business courses and even getting their MBAs.

Im a big proponent of this movement. IT managers with a good understanding of business practices enhance their own careers and are of greater value to the companies they work for. Also, IT managers who understand the business lingo of the CEO and chief financial officer (and other CXOs) help bridge the language and knowledge gap that often exists between the technical and business sides of a company.

Recently, however, Ive been hearing from my readers in the trenches that this trend, at least in some companies, may have gone too far in the other direction. It is now not uncommon, they say, to find companies that have senior IT management and even CIOs with limited or no technical skills and experience.

Now, while IT executives with all technical and no business skills can be a cause for concern, senior IT managers with all business and no technology skills whatsoever makes no sense at all.

So how does this happen?

I picture this conversation between a CEO and a coveted new executive:

Nancy: "Bob, wed really like to have you as part of our executive team, but, right now, the only opening we have is CIO."

Bob: "No problem, Nancy. I can totally do that job. Why, just last week I bought a new home computer, and I was able to get it all hooked up and started on my own. And, did I mention that Im a whiz with PowerPoint?"

Nancy: "Say no more—youre our new CIO."

Bob: "Great, I cant wait to tell my mom that Im a chief infotechie officer."

Also driving this trend is the perceived complexity of modern technology. Some people see the constant change, innovation and turnover in technology and feel that its just too complex and dynamic even for a technically skilled executive to handle. (Theres a similar perception about security.) So why not hire a businessperson and just have him or her follow the advice of consultants and analyst companies?

But this just doesnt make good business sense. Consultants and analyst companies dont know your particular business. Most likely, they are going to try to map your business to another customer they believe is similar. Then youll just get what that customer got, whether it really makes sense for your company or not.

To maintain a competitive edge on the technology front, you need IT executives who understand the architecture, the language and the workings of technology. Im not saying that these people need to be detailed coders, but they do need to understand the technology. For example, when you buy a car, you probably dont know how to rebuild the engine or, with modern cars, even how to give it a tuneup. But you do understand the difference between a four-cylinder and six-cylinder engine; you know the benefits and early-adopter risks of hybrids; and, most important, you know how the car will fit your lifestyle.

A good IT executive should have at least a similar level of understanding when it comes to the technology that theyre purchasing for their company. But if you ask a pure businessperson to evaluate an SOA solution, its kind of like asking someone who has never even driven a car to buy one for you.

As in many other business areas, good balance tends to bring about the best results. IT executives who come from the technical ranks but who have gained strong business management skills along the way can effectively evaluate the best IT options for your company while understanding the business needs and strategies of your company.

And, honestly, would you hire someone without related experience in any other area of your business? I dont think there are too many companies out there that have CFOs with no accounting or financial skills.

Hmm. Now that I think about it, maybe the name "chief information officer" is the problem. After all, everybody has some kind of information. To be strictly correct, it should be called CITO (as in chief information technology officer).

Although, now that I think about it, I kind of like chief infotechie officer.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at


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