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Wanted: CIO with Technical Experience

Behind Every CIO is a Busy Team

I get excited when I remember how important technical experience is to leading an organization. This blog stems from an incident last December which landed in our Open Systems department. My senior leadership team and I receive regular text updates about issues like this when they arise, so we knew the progress. However, on this particular day, I had a couple of free minutes and decided to visit the Open Systems team for a first-hand account of the issue.

When I arrived, I saw a half-dozen employees gathered in one cube around a single terminal. I immediately knew who could provide me with the details I needed. After a thorough update, I thanked them all for their efforts. Then one team member said, “Thanks for understanding and allowing us to work the issue.”

I knew exactly what he meant because I have been there before. In moments like these, the last thing we need is someone from leadership nervously looking over our shoulder, wondering why it is taking so long.

CIOs with strong business backgrounds may be good with peer leadership. Can they effectively lead and inspire a technology organization?

A concerning number of articles have come out recently advocating that a “business background” and “good communication skills” are all that is needed to be a Chief Information Officer (CIO) today. In this line of thought, a technical background is not necessarily a “requirement.” Authors go on about today’s “as a Service” (SaaS, PaaS, IaaS, etc.) industry, but several of them hold the opinion that business skills are more important than technical skills. That notion has increasingly troubled me. I agree that a mix of business, communication and tech skills are a prerequisite for technology leaders. However, technical experience is essential to the IT industry, and therefore should be a leading requirement of the CIO.

Balancing Tech and Biz

I love getting questions about this in interviews. The first time it came up, I was surprised, thinking the answer was a no-brainer. After the interview, I began to research. What had others been publishing? I was not convinced by what I found. One industry magazine went as far as to suggest that the CIO role is not needed at all. The article went on to predict its death. Can you imagine the state of an organization with no one guiding the overall strategy and direction?

The discussion only exists as a result of a lack of understanding of the technology organization. Business professionals do not understand what the modern IT organization is or what it does. IT organizations need decision-makers with a sufficient technical background in areas such as infrastructure, application development and operations. Leaders who can rely on their personal experiences are actually more equipped to process the information provided by their team. Leaders should be able to leverage experience to make strategic decisions. These are the types of decisions that affect entire organizations. Technical teams do not take for granted our proficient use of technology, knowledge of system design and system processes.

Technical Experience vs. Empathy

Ultimately, to understand or appreciate the challenges that a technical team faces daily, a good leader has already walked in the team’s shoes. They have participated in 1:00 a.m. bridge calls, diagnosed incidents and walked into work with the call still in progress at 7:00 a.m. They have experienced major outages and have the scars to show for it. Finally, they know how to treat the team because they do what they would have liked their executive suite to have done during and after a technology crisis. Diagnosing elusive issues is frustrating. On the other hand, it is also rewarding when your teammates drop everything to assist. The CIO needs to be at least tech-savvy: technical enough to understand, and savvy enough to contribute back in a way that is worthy of their team’s respect.

Ed Toner is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). See more Featured Contributor posts.

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