Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Will your next CIO be a non-techie?

By Kate Bulkley


October 18, 2006

Analysis: More and more top IT roles are filled by someone outside IT - or at least by a reformed techie

As business-savvy becomes central to the CIO role, many companies are looking for candidates with non-technical backgrounds - and techies are required to widen their experience. Kate Bulkley looks at which skills make a successful CIO today.

Once upon a time and not that long ago, a company's IT director was most likely a highly educated techie with a head full of complex, specialised knowledge that fixed all those nasty computer systems problems.

But those days are disappearing fast - and are long gone in some industry sectors. Today's head of IT is increasingly under pressure to take a seat at the head table of business power - to become a CIO.

Roger Flynn, CEO of Springboard, a technology investment company and the ex-CEO of BBC Ventures, says: "It's the use of technology and how it can be taken on board that's more important in a company these days, because that's where all the value is. The modern CIO has to have the business acumen to understand how technology can be best implemented as well as have the political and cultural dexterity to manage the buy-in issues at the board level."

CIO profiles

Meet two CIOs - one who started out as a techie, one who did not.

- CIO from techie roots: Siemens' Gordon Lovell-Read

- CIO from the business: EDS' Veronique Dargue

Simon Wiggins, European leader for the CIO Practise at executive recruiters Korn Ferry, agrees. "If you took technology out of every business in the world, it probably wouldn't survive," he says. "Therefore the role of the CIO is becoming more and more important. They are getting closer to the heart of business, so they are not just a service provider, keeping the technology running. They are now embedded in every aspect of the business and their ideas and thoughts can drive the business forward."

A study by Burson-Marsteller in 2004 showed that less than five per cent of Fortune Global 500 companies had CIOs on their boards. Talk to many of those companies two years on and the chances are the CIO has either been given a seat on the board or more business responsibility.

That means executive recruiters are looking in many cases beyond the IT director for the best CIO candidates. But even as they do, they must be careful because more than a cursory understanding of the technology side of the business is an important starting point.

Gordon Lovell-Read, CIO of Siemens UK and someone whose career path has included a wide range of jobs beyond IT, says: "You might get your CIO from the technology department but probably not in one straight move. The IT guy needs to be put into other departments including sales, marketing and people management to get all the relevant experiences. It's the same with a CFO. To move beyond the accounting department they should be great managers but a lot of them aren't."

Korn Ferry's Wiggins says: "Traditional IT directors have to understand the levers of business and hone and improve their relationship skills. Ten years ago we might have thought of the techno-geek in the corner but now CIOs have to be relationship people, able to articulate quite complex issues in business language."

There is also anecdotal evidence that there is a dearth of people with the right combination of skills to take on the true CIO role. Robin Barrett, the ex-CIO of American Express International, who now runs a consultancy called Fluence, says: "For my experience I would say that there are only about a dozen CIOs in the FTSE 100 that have all the skills that a modern CIO needs. That means that for recruiters the same names crop up again and again."

None of the current CIOs interviewed for this article considered themselves typical IT guys or gals, although most of them started out with techie degrees and in techie roles. Certainly all of them recalled clear moments in their careers when they were given an opportunity to break out of a pure IT role into something else, perhaps sales or a general management role of an operating unit, or in several cases, taking on a more entrepreneurial or venture capital role either inside or outside of a big corporate.

Ten years ago we might have thought of the techno-geek in the corner but now CIOs have to be relationship people, able to articulate quite complex issues in business language. Many rose to their CIO status through heading up 'change' programmes at their companies where IT played a central role.

Take ex-Barclays Bank CIO David Weymouth who got his job after helping with a strategic IT review in 1998 while he was COO of Barclays' business banking.

Weymouth says: "I had been noisy and difficult during the strategic review and after a search I won the competition for CIO so I guess you get what you wish for.

"Matt Barrett had come in from Canada as the new CEO and he wanted a CIO because that was what he was used to. So the CIO role encompassed IT, operations, procurement and business change, which required greater general management, operational and political skills than pure technology horsepower.

"The role was also what was needed in the bank at the time because we had set a target to take 1bn of cost out of the business and about half of that was IT."

Weymouth's experience at Barclays underlines how the role of the CIO can change, depending on what the company is trying to do at the time and how the CEO - and in many cases also the CFO - sees the CIO job.

Weymouth says: "When companies pick CIOs it is not a cookie-cutter approach. It is very case-sensitive."

He has had first-hand experience - after he left Barclays in 2005, CEO John Varley (who succeeded Matt Barrett in 2004) created the role of COO, with the CIO reporting to him. Weymouth says: "So now the CIO role at Barclays is back to a more pure technology play."

Having retired from Amex in 2005 after 33 years in the business - 10 of them at Amex - Robin Barrett is looking to fill what he thinks is a big gap in the CIO's skill set, by launching a business education course for CIOs and their teams. He began his own career with a computer sciences degree from Cambridge in 1972 (the first year they were awarded) and like many current CIOs, he learned the "business stuff" along the way.

He says: "I'll be honest and tell you I can't read a profit and loss account although I know what's in there. It's a question of knowing what you need to know and for a CIO it's about understanding the business drivers and thinking innovatively in business terms about how to make technology make money."

Although the modern CIO may be required to have less hands-on technical expertise, all the CIOs interviewed viewed having some understanding about technology as critical to their success.

David Burden, group technology director and member of the board at Royal Mail Group, has true techie credentials, holding a degree in pure maths and starting out in his career running a computer services bureau in the 1970s. But working for Air Canada as CIO in the early1990s and then from 1995 being in charge of technology and services and a member of the executive committee at Qantas, Burden is no longer a hands-on technology guy.

Burden says: "What I have that is important is a bullshit detector. I have the scars on my back so that I would know if we were getting into trouble on the technology side


Articles Menu