Amy Jackson

Engineering Education Now: The CIO Role

June 26, 2019

Of all the positions in the C-suite, the CIO role has been traditionally viewed as the old reliable of tech. But the CIO role has recently undergone a sea change.

Engineering Education Now: The CIO Role

Our last post concerned factors for engineers to consider before switching to the manager track. In terms of larger goals, of course, the C-suite is often at the top of the list.

The C-Suite and the Influence of Tech

But which position in the C-suite? It’s gotten rather crowded in there. The Chief Information Officer (CIO) position has been around for a while, as have the reliable CEO, CFO, and CMO positions.

But when it comes to aspirational roles for engineers, there’s quite a few C-suite titles these days to go after beyond the CIO position. How about two types of CDO, both the Chief Digital Officer and the Chief Data Officer? There are also two kinds of CTOs, the Chief Technology Officer, and an even younger title, the Chief Transformation Officer.

Furthermore, organizations are not uniformly adopting these positions in their C-suite. Some have one of these new types of roles, while others may have all of them. Some companies have the Chief Tech Officer report to the CIO, while others have just the reverse. Or, all of these titles may report to the CFO in order to achieve project funding, rather than the CEO.

Clearly, there’s a lot to consider here. Let’s start with the old reliable, the CIO.

The CIO Role – Keeping the Lights On

The CIO is generally seen as an internal facing position rooted in technology, the company-wide face of the IT department. Traditionally the position viewed as the stalwart one keeping the lights on, for a few years it’s had something of a red-haired stepchild aura compared to its digital and technology C-suite brethren.

But this position has undergone a sea change. Nothing illustrates that better than a 2016 article in Fortune titled “Why No One Wants to Be a Chief Information Officer Any More,” followed two years later by a survey Forbes conducted of over 400 CIOs with the headline, “Role Of CIO Is Changing And Growing In Importance, Say New Forbes Insights Studies.”

The 2016 article points out the “heavy lifting” that the CIO is responsible for, everything from protecting the company from hackers to fixing breaks in software. By ensuring compliance with corporate tech standards, the CIO becomes a “wet blanket.” Anything exciting in the world of tech is the domain of another position, such as the Chief Digital Officer.

The writer summarizes: “Today, none of my students wants to become a CIO or even to work in IT. They are interested in being digital entrepreneurs and innovators. They don’t want to focus on keeping the lights on. They want to work with emerging technologies and transform business.”

The CIO Role – New Challenges

Interestingly, the 2018 Forbes studies point to these seemingly boring aspects of the CIO role as some of the very reasons why the CIO has become both indispensable and a highly visible innovator. CIOs are now dealing with the “diffusion of IT,” the fact that tech plays an indispensable role in every aspect of their business. This has unavoidably broadened the CIO role.

Chad Lindbloom of C.H. Robinson states, “The CIO used to be a high-level technical advisor who backed up the business. But technology is now so pervasive and so important that they have to use that expertise to lead the firm. This positions the CIO as an expert in every part of the organization.”

The 2018 Forbes studies also underline the great challenges that CIOs now face as new responsibilities for helping shape company direction are only added to “traditional” CIO responsibilities. Bask Iyer, CIO of VMware, notes: “CIOs are in the middle of the customer relationship, in the supply chain and in front of the board. These are whole new areas for IT. They make the job more interesting, but also a lot tougher.”

Further, CIOs can no longer simply mandate certain technologies. Instead they must partner with business users to figure out the right path forward together, or risk the creation of “shadow IT,” situations where CIOs don’t collaborate, and business units simply decide for themselves what they need.

The CIO Role – CIO Heaven vs. Reality

The 2018 Forbes studies include the observation that CIO heaven would be a completely standardized one-size-fits-all company. But the pervasive diffusion and permeation of technology means that businesses present incredibly complex challenges for CIOs. Perhaps this proves the “curse” of the supposedly Chinese pronouncement, “may you live in interesting times.” At any rate, the CIO role in 2019 and beyond will certainly not be a boring one.

Next time we’ll take a look at the Chief Technology Officer role.

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