High-tech careers: CIOs who took an alternative route to the top

Funky career choices can pack a competitive edge, as these four IT leaders can testify.

A high school physics teacher. A hockey coach and referee. An intern at the National Science Foundation.

What do these seemingly disparate positions have in common? They were all early career choices for CIOs and CTOs who are now successfully immersed in IT strategy and technology leadership at major institutions, including a university, a commercial real estate company and a telecommunications start-up.

road not taken

Instead of following the traditional trajectory to a C-level tech position -- a computer science or engineering degree, followed by years of help desk work, programming and project management -- these tech leaders took an alternative route to the top IT spot.

Whether the itinerary was deliberate or unplanned, their early experiences off the beaten high-tech path provided invaluable communication, business and people skills that they believe helped separate them from the rest of the IT pack.

Rick King, chief technology officer at Thomson Reuters Professional, credits his years spent as a teacher, a coach and a hockey referee for giving him people skills that he finds are a key differentiator.

"Most people in technology or business don't approach things from a people point of view, but rather look at things from a revenue or cost perspective. It's this prism of looking at people and wanting to make them succeed that makes me different," he contends.

King and others who took a meandering path to the top of IT say that their unlikely career choices provided perspective and management expertise that made them more agile leaders and better problem solvers, not to mention that it better positioned them to serve as that proverbial bridge between technology and the business.

In fact, an alternative career path might eventually become the "new normal" for CIOs. While many first-generation CIOs "accidentally" fell into the emerging position in the 1980s when they were singled out as the resident technology expert, the second generation actively charted a direct course to a CIO title, usually by pursuing an MBA while doing stints in different functional areas of the business.

Today, it's entirely likely for a vice president who specializes in logistics, customer service or the sales organization to nab the CIO slot without actually clocking any real time in IT.

"It's totally possible for someone's first job in the IT organization to be CIO," notes Martha Heller, president of Heller Search Associates LLC, an executive search firm specializing in IT executive placement. She says it reflects a broader trend of the CIO role beginning to emphasize process re-engineering.

"As this becomes more about process than technology, an IT background is not as relevant as a background in business," she explains. "That's why you're finding people falling into the CIO role from all kinds of diverse backgrounds."

1 2 3 4 5 Page 1
Page 1 of 5
It’s time to break the ChatGPT habit
Shop Tech Products at Amazon