Ed Toner

CIO, No Technical Experience Required?

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Last week, during an issue the open systems team was working, I was reminded of how important experience is to leading an organization. The leadership team and I were receiving regular text updates about the issue and we knew progress was being made, but I had a couple of free minutes so I decided to visit the team on the second floor and get a first-hand account of the issue.  When I saw a half dozen employees gathered in one cube around a single terminal, I immediately knew who could provide me the details.

After a thorough update I thanked the team for their efforts and then one member of the group said, “Thanks for understanding and allowing us to work the issue”. 
I immediately knew what he meant because I have been there before.  In moments like these, I know the last thing you need is someone from leadership nervously looking over your shoulder wondering why it is taking so long.

The team then asked, “Are you going to write a blog about this? 

Well, yes I am.

Over the past year, I have seen  a concerning number of articles come out advocating a business background and good communication skills are all that is needed for today's Chief Information Officer.  Apparently a technical background with experience is not necessarily a “requirement” in today’s “as a Service" (SaaS, PaaS, IaaS, etc.) world.  I agree that a mix of business, communication and tech skills are a prerequisite for IT leaders; however, several authors stated that business skills are the most important. 

I was recently asked this very question in an interview with an industry magazine, and I was actually surprised by it. Thinking it was a no brainer, I began to research what others have been publishing, and I was unconvinced by what I found.  One article, written just last year, went as far as suggesting that the CIO role was not needed at all.  They went on to predict its death.  Can you imagine the state of an organization with no one guiding the overall strategy and direction? 

The fact that this discussion even exists is due to a lack of understanding about the technology organization including, what a technology organization is and what it does. I believe your organization not only needs to have a CIO with a technical background, the CIO must have a sufficient background in areas such as infrastructure, application development and operations. Leaders who can rely on their own experiences are actually more equipped to be able to process the information provided by their team. Leveraging these experiences, they are able to make strategic decisions that affect entire organizations. Proficiency using technology, knowledge of system design and system processes should not be taken for granted. 

Ultimately, I feel the chief requirement for leading an IT organization is that you have walked in your teams’ shoes.  You need to have participated in 1:00 a.m. bridge calls, diagnosing incidents, and walk into work with the call still in progress at 7:00 a.m.  You must have experienced major outages and have the scars to show for it, along with the knowledge of how you would have liked to have been treated by the executive suite during and after a technology crisis.

As I have stated in a previous blog, to effectively lead a team, you need to have personally experienced life on the front lines. Diagnosing issues that are elusive is frustrating, but it is also rewarding when teammates drop everything they are doing to assist.  Without these experiences you would not be able to understand and appreciate the effort and challenges your teams face daily.

I am not saying the CIO needs to be an uber-nerd, but rather tech-savvy. Technical enough to understand and contribute in a way that gains respect in discussions with the teams they lead. A CIO with a strong business background may be good with their peer leadership, but can they lead and inspire a technology organization effectively?

2017 has been a year full of many large accomplishments for the OCIO and for the state agency enterprise.  However, I am just as proud of the Open Systems team and how they addressed the issue I reference earlier.  Similarly, I am proud of how each of you address equivalent issues each and every day to ensure our technology services are available to the Citizens of Nebraska.


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