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Why few want to be the CIO anymore

More than half of the respondents to our survey say they don't aspire to be a CIO. Here's why politics, pay and a lack of prestige can sink CIO aspirations.

December 16, 2013 06:30 AM ET

Computerworld - 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.

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 IT professionals conducted in August and September, 55% of the respondents said they don't aspire to a CIO post. In fact, only 32% 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 organizations.

"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."

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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.

Julia King



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