From Dungeon to Corner Office: Evolution of the CIO

Last week, I attended the 2012 Midmarket CIO Forum. It got me thinking about how dramatically IT and the role of the chief information officer (CIO) have evolved.

My first introduction to the world of IT was back in the late eighties. I was fresh out of college and working for a software company in Santa Cruz, Calif. I recall the technician who delivered and set up the new Wyse 55 terminal in my cube (yes, ASCII terminals!). He was a 1960s throwback. He wore tie-dye t-shirts, bells on his ankles, and he did not wear shoes.

The IT team itself was housed in a room in the basement known as “the dungeon,” decorated in psychedelic posters, black lights and a couple of lava lamps.

The head of IT — at the time, the equivalent of a CIO — didn’t look much more sophisticated than the guy delivering terminals. However, he had the responsibility of supporting the technology of our 300-person company, yet had graduated from college only a year before me. He knew UNIX internals and system administration like nobody’s business but probably had no idea about how many customers the company had or how many transactions were completed on a daily basis, let alone the company’s revenues or profitability.

Fast forward to the 2012 Midmarket CIO Forum, as hundreds of CIOs gathered to discuss information technology. The contrast between the IT pros of my past and their modern-day counterparts is striking. At the conference, all of the individuals I met were confident and impressive business people.

Yes, business people.

Sure, they could go “geek” when they needed to. But their conversations were not about bits and bytes and transaction speeds. They talked about business strategies to grow revenues and CAPEX versus OPEX budgeting to maximize profitability.

Over the last decade, technology has become more intertwined with business models and overall customer satisfaction. As a result, IT has moved from a low-priority to high-priority, a cost center to a profit center, non-strategic to strategic.

Today’s successful CIO is a key executive within the organization. In fact, the CIO has become the CEO’s wingman and is often an important presence at board meetings. Not only are they well-versed in their organization’s business strategies;in many cases, they are actually driving them.

 An informal poll at the conference confirmed that no longer does the CIO report up to the CFO, as was the case historically. A majority of CIOs report directly to the CEO today.

 Conversely, IT teams and CIOs who haven’t made this evolution are no longer in their roles or will eventually be pushed out. The fact is, at many companies, the role of the CIO or even IT can be tenuous. Businesses need to deploy and exploit technology at an ever-increasing pace to be competitive. And if CIOs can’t keep pace or drive innovation, they run the risk of becoming irrelevant. Businesses will find a way around them.

 While some claim that the position is destined to disappear, I believe the function will remain. Sure, the CIO will need to become more agile, innovative and business savvy to keep the company competitive, but having someone with a holistic view of IT is essential.

More likely, the relevance of IT and the individuals running these organizations will continue to gain influence within businesses. In fact, I expect that many a future CEO will have a resume with a strong technology background, if not a stint in IT, as strategies will be increasingly dependent on effective utilization of technology.

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About the Author: Shannon Lewis

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