How To Become A CIO Or CTO

How To Become A CIO Or CTO
By , Earl Follis

What does it take to become a CIO or CTO? Do you have the right C-level stuff? Here are 5 must-have traits of successful IT leaders and advice on how you can climb the ranks to a CIO or CTO position.

Most IT professionals listen to speeches delivered by CIOs and CTOs and think "I'd make a great CIO or CTO" or "I am clearly more knowledgeable and capable than that CIO or CTO." This is a fun daydream but it raises an interesting question: what does it take to be an effective CIO or CTO? Do you have the right C-level stuff? If not, do you know how to hone your skills and develop your expertise so that you, too, can one day be a CIO or CTO?

CIOs are typically responsible for leading an organization's IT staff and related assets, projects and personnel. A CIO may report directly to the CEO or they may report to another C-level executive, such as the Chief Operating Officer or the Chief Financial Officer.

CTOs typically own the overarching technology strategy for a company and how that strategy meshes with and supports that company’s business requirements and objectives. A CTO can also report directly to the CEO or another C-level executive.

Of course, there are many different types, shapes and sizes of CIOs and CTOs. Though there is no singular definition of what constitutes a great CIO or CTO, we identify some common traits and skills that are shared by the best CIOs and CTOs. Along the way, we'll point out ways to build a resume and technology repertoire that will serve you well as you climb the ranks on your way to a CIO or CTO position.

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Leadership And Team-Building

There are managers and there are leaders and never the twain shall meet -- usually. Managers tell people what to do and how to do it while leaders seduce, cajole and, well, lead an IT organization to achieve the goals defined by executive management. We have worked with IT managers and IT leaders in our careers and there are advantages to each type of management style and capability.

Managers are usually tightly connected to the traditional IT hierarchy and organizational processes. Many managers work their way up through the ranks of IT and have earned a managerial role through hard work, relevant experience and technical competency. IT leaders may also come up through the ranks or they may earn a leadership role through force of personality, communication skills, political acumen or industry knowledge. It's not unusual for CIOs and CTOs to be recruited from outside of a company.

The Holy Grail for IT executives is someone who is both a good manager and a motivating leader; that is, someone who can comprehend an IT project plan and budget and simultaneously able to effectively communicate big picture goals and priorities for an IT organization.

Technical And Industry Knowledge

The typical job requirements of a CIO or a CTO include technical, financial and organizational experience. Efforts over the last ten years to more closely link IT to the business side of a company adds in-depth business knowledge to the CIO and CTO job requirements mix.

Gone are the days when your CIO or CTO could ignore the business and deliver IT on IT's schedule. CIOs and CTOs who don't fully support the business goals of a company can find themselves looking for work elsewhere. With this in mind, following hi-tech industry websites and influential CIO/CTO blogs is a great first step to CIO-hood. Learn the lingo and see for yourself what working CIOs and CTOs are talking about and why.

For the technical foundation, a CIO or CTO needs to be successful, avail yourself of advanced technical training and IT project management training at every opportunity. If your company offers tuition reimbursement or a technical training budget, you should further your technical knowledge through those vehicles.

CIO Education

Many companies prefer a CIO or CTO with an advanced degree, usually an MBA, considering the complexity of IT budgets and processes. That said, we've meet outstanding CIOs and CTOs with no more formal education than a high school diploma or a bachelor's degree. We've also met CIOs and CTOs with doctorates in unrelated fields. We'd rather work for a non-degreed CIO or CTO who makes well-informed decisions and can lead the IT staff into battle than to work for a CIO with a PhD but no knowledge about the culture and internal workings of IT.

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Ambition And Drive

Being a CIO or CTO is a very difficult job that requires dedication and persistence. Most CIOs we know are "on-call" 24 X 7 X 365 should any IT-related issues come up. True, the financial rewards for C-level executives can be substantial, yet the personal sacrifices involved with taking a technology leadership role can be daunting. It’s definitely not the right job for everyone. It's rare for a qualified candidate to simply fall into a CIO or CTO role. Instead, it usually takes years of hard work to earn your way into the executive ranks. The timeline is usually shorter at smaller companies so working as a CIO or CTO in a smaller IT shop can be a great way to get your foot in the C-level door and gain valuable experience that can be a stepping stone to a similar role at progressively larger companies.

Communication Skills

We've saved the most important CIO and CTO skill for last: the ability to inspire and lead your IT troops via excellent communication skills. If you do not have experience talking in front of large groups, spend time at a Toastmasters Club gaining the confidence to communicate individuals, teams and organizations. CIOs and CTOs also need to be able to communicate clearly and concisely via the written word. If your writing skills need honing, consider taking a business writing class to learn the specialized way that IT writes. Learning terms and acronyms specific to your company or your industry is also an effective to gain a common vocabulary that will serve you well in IT.

Is This For You?

If you are still interested in pursuing a CIO or CTO position, this article gives you some concrete steps to get you started. This is not a decision to be made lightly, as it will take years of hard work and maybe even a little good luck for you to achieve your C-level goal. If your company has an IT mentoring program, that is one excellent way to gain relevant knowledge and skills while also identifying yourself to executive management as someone who has the will and stamina to climb the IT leadership ladder. Make the decision with your eyes wide open as to the challenges ahead, then never take no for an answer. Remain focused and committed to your goal and good things will surely come your way.

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