Why few want to be the CIO anymore

More than half of the respondents to a survey by Computerworld in the US say they don't aspire to be a CIO

Stephanie Jurenka started out in IT as a systems administrator more than 10 years ago. Today, she's an IT manager with absolutely zero interest in a CIO role.

"Being a CIO doesn't offer the opportunity to do the cool stuff that IT people like so much to do. It's about meetings and budgets and politics," says Jurenka, who works at Westway Group, a bulk liquid storage company in New Orleans in the US.

Dan Allen, an IT manager at Delta Children's Products in New York, feels the same way. With close to 20 years in the profession, he has no desire to be a CIO either.

"The IT management positions I pursue are almost all hands-on positions," Allen says. "Yes, you have to take advantage of the opportunities given to you, but I continue to work on my [technical] certifications because I want to be in an engineering position. The CIO role doesn't appeal to me. I discovered over the years that I prefer to be hands-on."

Jurenka and Allen aren't alone. In a Computerworld survey of 489 US-based IT professionals conducted in August and September, 55 per cent of the respondents said they don't aspire to a CIO post. In fact, only 32 per cent of them said that they have set their caps for IT's top job. Politics, relatively low pay and a lack of prestige all register as deterrents.

Yet there's another reason for this shift in career thinking. Technology professionals are being recruited to work in marketing, logistics and other functions outside of IT as technology becomes more deeply embedded in virtually every aspect of the business.

That trend is expanding the IT career path horizontally. Rather than one career ladder with CIO at the top rung, there are increasingly multiple career bridges across organisations.

"The digital business wave is bound to reignite interest in information and technology and to lure people into different areas of the business as information and technology increase their direct impact on revenue, markets and customers," says Diane Morello, an analyst at Gartner. "Information and technology are lifeblood for companies: No single department owns them."

An issue of status

For Christopher Barron, CIO at Valerus, a Houston-based oil and gas services company, Computerworld's survey findings weren't what he expected. "I was surprised that the percentage [of tech workers who don't want to be CIOs] wasn't higher," he says.

Barron says he believes IT professionals today are spurning the CIO role because of the comparatively low status that the title carries at most companies. "If people are going to work hard toward getting a C-level title, they want it to mean something," he says. "What a lot of people see is that CIOs don't wield either the power or authority commensurate to a C-level title."

Another big disincentive: "The politics are endless and there's not a lot of respect for the position," Barron says. "The C-suite is pretty apathetic about the CIO position. What they want is for systems to work and they want no drama out of IT."

While Barron says that he enjoys the role, he believes the modern CIO has become an ambassador within the C-suite. "The set of skills required to be successful is not what a typical technologist would likely possess or, more importantly, value," he notes.

Interested onlookers

The politics and power struggles don't go unnoticed by the rank and file. Additionally, IT staffers say they can't help but notice how much time the CIO role requires. Many IT professionals, especially younger people, are unwilling to trade off having balanced work and home lives for the pursuit of IT's top spot.

"I watched my VP's transition to the most senior level and the time it takes to devote to that position is too much time to give to my career for me," says Jurenka.

"The tendency to do more with less means most IT people are spending a great deal more time on the job and the level of productivity required of each individual is ramping up," observes Joseph Morgan, a programmer/analyst at Amerigroup, WellPoint's government business division in Virginia Beach in the US.

"There's a perception that it will only get worse the higher up you go and you'll have no life," he adds. "The amount of money a CIO makes is not enough compensation for a lack of a life."

All of which makes for something of a stalemate. At the same time that so many technology professionals aspire to advance through tech-focused, hands-on roles, more and more of those roles are being handed off to service providers and contractors.

Increasingly, the technology-related careers that remain at non-IT companies fall under a kind of hybrid role, which requires business and process acumen plus enough IT experience to understand how to use technology to advance the business.

The upside of this scenario is that talented technical professionals have a place to grow and thrive with service providers that are fully engaged with the latest technologies and their uses.

"There are more career paths into and out of IT than there used to be," says Markus Bierl, CIO at Franke Foodservice Systems in Nashville in the US. "It's much more important that you know and understand the business. I have people in my organisation who came from the business side and I have IT people who transferred back to a business role. An IT career path is no longer a straight career path," he says.

CIOs from healthcare, financial services and manufacturing tell a similar story. Fast-changing business processes, the need for speed, consumers' appetites for customisation, and ever-mounting government and industry regulation are all working to complicate day-to-day business. What they need internally are people in IT with business knowledge and deep industry expertise.

"SaaS and the consumerization of IT and cloud services are driving a clear wedge between the two branches of an IT career," says Bill Mayo, senior IT director at Biogen Idec, a biotech company in Weston, Mass. "We're taking business-facing IT people and switching them to directly reporting to the business with a dotted line reporting back to IT."

The upshot is that the most technical of the techies will likely be pursuing their IT careers with service providers, while more business-oriented IT professionals will remain in IT departments to manage contractors and oversee service provider agreements or move into hybrid roles outside of IT.

"You are starting to see a thinning out of database administrators and other administrative resources because more and more companies are supplying managed services to companies," Donnici says. "Some of the specialized positions in applications, such as PeopleSoft, also begin to go away because there are SaaS providers. The macro trend is for techie people to go to SaaS and cloud companies and to internally retain more business roles."

That assessment resonates with Allen at Delta Children's Products. "I see more and more that in the future I will end up at a provider company or a consulting company, providing either infrastructure or software as a service," he says. "More of us [IT professionals without CIO aspirations] will end up having to move to those positions."

An IT career still comes down to pursuing either a technical or managerial track, says Bob Dulski, director of IT at the Chicago Zoological Society. And that carries through to the CIO role. "It's not that important anymore that they know about VMware or cloud computing," he says. "The CIO is a different kind of person."

The evolving CIO

A problem of perception?

"If IT people aren't identifying with the CIO title, you have to wonder if it's because they've got some old interpretation of the CIO role," says Bill Mayo, a senior director of IT at Biogen Idec, who does indeed have aspirations to one day be a CIO.

As Mayo sees it, the CIO job has changed radically in the past decade, making it more, not less, attractive.

"It used to be that the CIO was kind of the lead geek, then the guy who translated geek speak to business speak, then the person struggling to get a seat at the table. Now, with so much focus on innovation, the CIO has emerged as the guy who is at the table causing some discomfort because he's pushing people to try new things," Mayo says.

"Everything is changing, and to some extent, the role of CIO has become much richer and much more exciting. The CIO is in a position to agitate for change."

At Biogen Idec, for example, Mayo recalls that former CIO Ray Pawlicki spent more than a year as the interim head of human resources, where his chief responsibility was defining the biotech company's culture and determining "how we would innovate and how we would work as a company."

At Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, the CIO role also has changed and expanded, according to Troy Hiltbrand, enterprise architect in the Office of the CIO. For starters, the lab's CIO, who previously reported to the CFO, now is a peer to the CFO and reports to the laboratory director.

"The role also has shifted away from technology and focusing on how to get operations to an optimal level and toward looking at how we're leveraging technology and information to enable the business," Hiltbrand says.

The IT department has also been renamed Information Management and is increasingly focused on acquiring off-the-shelf software and services, lessening the need for highly skilled technology professionals on staff.

"We're seeing a shift from people who are hands-on technologists to those who can manage contracts and establish a service level and then manage a vendor to accomplish those directives," Hiltbrand says.

To reflect these and other changes, Hiltbrand says lab officials are working on redefining job titles and laying out clear career paths for staffers "so we can set expectations as to what's needed and to the next step they should take."

Among other things, the revamped job descriptions will include information about the audience the people in each role can expect to engage with, the technical skills they will need and a description of how they will engage with the wider Department of Energy laboratory complex, Hiltbrand says.

All in all, he says, the IT jobs at the lab require more business and communication skills and are more outward-facing.

The evolving CIO

A leader to follow

Joseph Puzio, a business technology liaison at Janney Montgomery Scott, had no intention of pursuing a CIO role when he joined the Philadelphia financial services firm seven years ago. Having graduated with a computer science degree, Puzio was set on advancing his career on the network and infrastructure side of the house.

That all changed when Bob Thielmann, the company's current CIO and Puzio's mentor, took on the CIO role.

Puzio says Thielmann's knowledge of the financial services industry as well as technology impressed him enough to make him want to pursue the same career path.

"Bob sits in on meetings other CIOs might not normally sit in on. These are strategy meetings as well as meetings about a new application or new vendor," he says. "What I've been able to see is the difference it makes when someone has knowledge in IT and the business. It really helps point the team in the right direction."

Puzio is currently in a role that also requires both technology and business knowledge. As an IT-business liaison, "I know how to code and to set up a server, but I can also sit down with the business and figure out what they need," he says.

The liaisons at Janney are each dedicated to specific sections of the firm -- retail brokerage, legal and compliance, and capital markets and operations.

"We're siloed off, so I get to know my constituents, but we also work together strategically, so we get to know the needs of other business groups," he says.

From his perch in a hybrid role, Puzio has observed an increase in the use of consumer technologies and hosted services. But, at Janney anyway, those trends have led to an increased reliance on developers, rather than diminishing the importance of in-house development.

"There's a lot of emphasis on development, because a lot of SaaS is plain vanilla and you need to customise," he explains. "We get a SaaS application, then customise or add our security layer. On the other side, we want to make sure these apps work just as fast as if they were housed here."

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