How does one become a CIO?

I am not going to lie. My goal is to one day be the CIO of a government agency. Of course, I really don’t know what educational back and job experience one needs. I have a MPA and I am planning on going back to school in an IT related field.

Aside from having a strong network of contacts, how does one prepare for the role? Can somebody help a brother out?



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This was once my dream (not anymore) and I did a bunch of research.

My thoughts:

-1st key is just working in a CIO shop for a number of years in a variety of roles. You need to know program management and have actually delivered projects on time and budget. You need to know budget and planning. You need to have managed people and all the skills needed in leading a team. You need to have experience in acquisition and making large purchases and managing vendors. I’d also add I think it’s good to have private sector experience (ideally selling to government) so you understanding the vendor perspective when dealing with them (as CIO a lot of what you will do is vendor mgmt)

-There are cool trainings. CIO magazine has a CIO Bootcamp. There is a CIO University that I think GSA, DAU, OMB, Maryland put on together

Ed Albetski

Having taught seminars to rooms full of Federal CIOs, I can’t help myself.

I’m reminded of a scene in the film THE DIRTY DOZEN where Lee Marvin (as Major Reisman) advises Donald Sutherland (playing Pinckley, a near imbecile) on how to best impersonate a general. He said “Act dumb and look stupid.”

Seriously your MPA probably qualifies you. You have to be able to manage people, time, and resources, and , as Steve has stated, vendors. Only a VERY few that I have met have any actual knowledge of IT. Getting some IT experience puts you ahead of the curve.

Henry Brown

Being a CIO of DOD or DHS is a whole lot different than being the CIO of Consumer Product Safety Commission or Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board

(NOT current numbers but suspect that the Percentages are still relatively good )….

Would offer that being the CIO of a relatively small agency is MORE dependent of your technical/management skills where the larger agencies will be much more dependent on your leadership/political skills.

Sonny Hashmi

(Caveat: I am not a CIO, but I work closely with many public sector CIOs. I am however a two time public sector CTO)

The CIO university and the Gartner CIO academy are good primers. The answer really depends on the business you will be a part of (which agency, what company). A successful CIO is a business executive first and an IT leader second. Successful CIOs have a clear and detailed understanding of the business (of the agency, company, etc.). They understand the agency’s success metrics, the company’s P&L statements, key customers, performance metrics, market forces. Their success lies in aligning IT as a resource to the business of the agency, company, etc. They need to understand IT in terms of outcomes, services and capabilities, and most importantly, the relationship between the inputs (priorities, resources, personnel, skillets, budgets, vendors) to outcomes (service levels, capabilities, quality, etc.). Their job is then to provide the right inputs to generate the right outputs to drive business outcomes, both tactically (capacity in response to demand, etc.) and strategically (investing in the right resources, skills and technologies to support the long term business vision).

Spend time in positions that provide a good understanding of business measurement, outcomes, strategy and goals (capital planning, strategic planning, enterprise architecture, business analysis).

Linda Y. Cureton


At this point, your experience is more important than your academic background. In particular an MPA is a pretty good start. You don’t give an indication about your technical expertise, so I will assume not much just for the sake of discussion.

If you plan on going back to school to study an IT related field, I would suggest IT security. The demand is high in the area and your MPA would come in handy to applying business sense to your technical area.

One you’ve settled in the technical area of your choice, say after two years, start looking to move to another federal agency. Having a diverse experience will naturally enhance your network. Many people stay in one agency for decades. Pretty much, if you did this, you would only have ONE CIO position to shoot for. You want to diversify so that you can be a credible candidate for most jobs. Get a ticket punch in a field location even if it is just a detail assignment. In many agencies, the real work is done in the field. A successful CIO will need to understand what life is like in the field.

When you make your move, keep an eye on getting into management. Make this perhaps your 3rd job change. After that, seek progressively more resonsible positions. As you progress, you will need to increase scope, budget, or staff size. When you get to a GS-14, start looking for jobs with title of Deputy Associate CIO, Associate CIO, or Deputy CIO.

If you’re in Washington DC area, try to get into the American Council for Technology (ACT) Voyagers Program. If you’re a GS-15, shoot for Partners. You’re building your network now. Don’t get seduced by industry’s love for you at this point (not ever actually). You will receive kudos about your intelligence, business savvy, good looks, etc. And it will be directly proportional to your IT budget authority. Don’t get tripped up by that. But, do nurture valuable professional relationships that will help you as you move t next level.

Start working on your leadership skills. Volunteer to lead things — especially IT-related. I think that church is a good leadership training ground. Or perhaps a community organization. Make sure that you get results. Set goals and see if you achieved them. You will need to find good ways to measure yourself and get feedback. Surround yourself with close colleagues who will tell you the truth about yourself. They are invaluable.

Now you’re ready to start applying fo CIO jobs. Time frame is reasonably 10 years

Andrew Soper

Thanks for the great advice! It’s nice to get insight by some of the great leaders in the federal government. I can’t wait to put it to use.