The business CIO

Now more than ever, experience outside IT counts.

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Consider the case of Robert J. Dowd, who says his business and finance background landed him the CIO job at Sonora Quest Laboratories LLC over candidates with much stronger IT experience.

"I came into the CIO job during a very difficult situation, when people were questioning whether this [company] would survive," says Dowd, who had been Tempe, Ariz.-based Sonora Quest's director of revenue service prior to his promotion. "And I perceived that what they needed was someone who could speak to the business and articulate to the board the things we needed to do to turn around."

Dowd says he understood the company's financials well beyond just how the IT budget fit into them. That understanding helped him persuade other senior executives and the board to spend millions of dollars in 2001 to replace outdated systems, despite the sagging economy. He positioned his request in financial terms because, he says, "you're not selling the architecture, you're selling the concept." He told them it would improve costs and deliver returns.

"Convincing people to spend more money when we're already losing money wasn't easy to do," Dowd says. "But coming from the finance side, I knew how to justify it, and they knew -- because I came from the finance side -- that I don't ask for things that I don't need."

Although Dowd had never held an IT position before becoming CIO, he says his lack of formal technical credentials has not hindered him from successfully doing his job. (During his tenure as CIO, the company experienced double-digit annual growth.) To get the IT expertise he needs as CIO, Dowd surrounds himself with technical experts.

The Hybrid Ideal

Nonetheless, not all companies are seeking business leaders to lead IT, says John Estes, vice president of strategic alliances at Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing firm in Menlo Park, Calif.

"You have people who say the CIO doesn't need any technical background. I think that's too extreme," he says. "The people in the trenches say the CIO doesn't need to know exactly what they're working on but that they'd like him to have an idea about what they're doing."

Gartner found in its CIO survey that more companies are looking for candidates who came up through the IT ranks but spent time in business, or for business executives who have a deep knowledge of IT. More important, perhaps, they're looking for candidates with leadership skills -- which transcend any one particular job title.

Peter R. Walton, who retired in April as vice president and CIO at Hess Corp., says he firmly believes that.

Walton, a former Navy pilot, spent 15 years working at and later running a small manufacturing company in New Jersey. Following his time there as CEO, he became director of IT structure and operations and then CIO at Hess, an energy company in New York.

He says his work at the manufacturing company gave him a deep understanding of business financials, human resources and management -- all of which made him a better CIO.

Moreover, he says his past experiences taught him how to lead -- how to focus on what would make the company, his boss and his team successful, without telling them that that was what he was doing.

"Whether you're coming up from IT or through the business ranks," he says, "I think that's the bottom line: being a good leader."

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at

This version of the story originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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