Technology

How to become a CIO: A cheat sheet


If you want to pursue a path toward becoming a CIO, here’s your guide to salaries, job markets, skills, and common interview questions.

Why CIOs need to be more responsive to business needs
CXO Talk host Michael Krigsman spoke with TechRepublic about the need for the C suite to be faster and more agile.

Business leaders are responsible for guiding a company and its employees toward successful goals; in order to do this, leaders must hire the best candidates to support their staff—but the responsibilities don’t stop there.

Most big changes in organizations begin at the top: Diversity and inclusion efforts, digital transformation initiatives, mentorship programs, upskill and reskill prioritization, cybersecurity procedures, and overall goal assessment. These movements are typically set by those in the C-suite and implemented by other executives and managers. 

SEE: How to build a successful CIO career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

However, planning and implementing the technology strategy for an organization falls on one specific leader: The Chief Information Officer (CIO). The CIO is the executive-level face of the technology department for the entire business, requiring an individual with impressive technical knowledge and communication abilities. 

Other members of the C-suite include the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Chief Digital Officer (CDO), and the Chief Technology Officer (CTO)—all of which are generally referred to as CXOs. CIOs are sometimes mistaken for CTOs, but CTOs are more responsible for forming technologies or technology strategies that help grow the business externally, looking at customer needs, as reported by the Telegraph. CIOs, instead, are inward-facing, managing the internal IT infrastructure. 

What does a CIO do?

The main responsibilities of the CIO are to work with other members of the C-suite and technology department to create the best technology gameplan for the business. Indeed’s Learning About Being a CIO career guide outlined the following common tasks of a CIO: 

  • Analyze the technology used in the design, development, and administration of the company for accuracy and efficiency
  • Collaborate with the CEO and project managers to assess resource use and allocation
  • Overlook the progress and development of the company’s communications network
  • Design a sufficient wide area connectivity infrastructure that can support remote access 
  • Compile a cost-benefit analysis of every change in the IT workflow
  • Suggest software and hardware upgrades as needed that improve operations and fit budget constraints

The rise of technologies including artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, and big data analytics bring new challenges and responsibilities for CIOs, according to a post on The Balance Careers. 

These new responsibilities include reevaluating the organization’s cloud strategy, investing in updating legacy systems, re-evaluating analytics strategy, investing in improving the quality of data, and considering GDPR and other data privacy regulations, said Moshe Kranc, CTO of Ness Digital Engineering, in a previous TechRepublic article. 

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Why are CIOs important for organizations?

As tech continues evolving, successful workplaces are forced to follow suit. In fear of being left behind, 87% of US employees said they are willing to reskill alongside a digital workforce, according to a
recent Blue Prism report

SEE: All of TechRepublic’s cheat sheets and smart person’s guides (TechRepublic)

However, employees—and the organization, as a whole—can’t reskill if they don’t know what the most useful tech trends are, which is where CIOs enter. Not only are digital transformation projects crucial for business success, they are also crucial for business relevancy. The CIO’s purpose is to make sure the organization is investing in the best tech. Without a CIO, organizations can fall behind on tech trends and be rendered irrelevant.

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What is the difference between a CIO and an IT director?

CIOs handle broader strategy and communications with other members of leadership, while IT directors are more responsible for the oversight of day-to-day operations. The main tasks given to IT directors include communicating with vendors, supervising the operation of server systems, supporting the implementation of software and hardware upgrades, and identifying security vulnerabilities, according to Indeed’s IT Director career guide.  

SEE: How to avoid CIO and CFO clashes over cloud spend (TechRepublic)

The career guide clarified that most IT directors at medium- to large-sized businesses usually report to a C-level executive. This means that they are the ones implementing the software and hardware upgrades decided upon by the CIO, as well as communicating known security vulnerabilities so the CIO can determine next steps within the organization.

What are some paths to becoming a CIO?

The career path to becoming a CIO is not set or linear—most often, it is a long and winding road to the top. Common education requirements for becoming a CIO include a bachelor’s degree in computer science, software engineering, information systems, or a related field, and often a master’s degree in business administration or information technology. 

Otherwise, qualifications mostly come down to experience, according to the DNA of a CIO report from Hays. An example CIO job description on Indeed lists a minimum of eight years’ experience in information technology and resource management, with a preference for candidates with at least three years on an executive level. 

However, the Hays report found that most CIOs (31%) held 15 to 20 years of experience in a related field before becoming a CIO. Some 26% of respondents reported having 10 to 15 years of experience before making the leap. While no clear path exists to becoming CIO, the more experience one has, the better. 

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What skills are necessary to becoming a successful CIO?

In addition to degrees in education and experience, CIOs require a diverse skill set. Indeed identified the following 10 most in-demand skills for CIOs: 

  1. Project management
  2. Agile project management
  3. Enterprise software development
  4. Budgeting
  5. Recruiting
  6. Business intelligence
  7. SAP
  8. VMware
  9. Data warehouse architectures
  10. Microsoft SharePoint

As for more general, evergreen skills, CIOs need strategic planning skills, leadership skills, interpersonal skills, and change management skills, according to the post on The Balance Careers. Being at such a high level of leadership, CIOs need communication skills just as much as they need tech skills, the post said. 

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What is the average salary for a CIO? 

As one of the highest-paying cybersecurity jobs of 2019, CIOs do make an impressive salary. Based on salary estimates from 554 employees, users, and job advertisements on Indeed—last updated on Sept. 3, 2019—the average pay per year for a CIO in the US is $124,347. 

Experience can make a big difference in a CIO’s pay, Payscale found. An entry-level CIO in the US with less than one year of experience will typically earn an average of $99,143, but that number jumps to $174,942 for CIOs with at least 20 years of experience. 

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What are the hottest markets for CIOs?

The 10 US states with the highest average annual salaries for CIOs in 2019, according to ZipRecruiter, are as follows (as of September 2019): 

  1. New York ($171,354)
  2. Massachusetts ($170,256)
  3. Maryland ($160,598)
  4. Nebraska ($157,667)
  5. Hawaii ($157,320)
  6. California ($157,005)
  7. Washington ($156,969)
  8. Nevada ($156,623)
  9. North Dakota ($156,623)
  10. Alaska ($156,623)

Overall, the market for CIOs is very positive. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in this field is projected to grow by 12% by 2026, faster than the total employment growth of 7% across occupations in the US. 

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What are typical CIO interview questions?

Some of the top questions potential CIOs could face during a job interview, according to Indeed, include: 

  • This company might need to purchase and implement a new IT system at some point. As a CIO, how would you convince [other executives] the system is beneficial?
  • Let’s say you’re faced with a budget decrease for the IT department here. How would you deal with that decrease and prioritize various information-based projects?
  • Talk to me about Agile Project Management as it relates to IT. What sort of management style is it, and when would you use it?
  • Have you had to deal with unfeasible IT requests from other company executives in the past? How did you deal with these problematic requests?
  • As CIO, what kinds of resources would you use regularly to stay updated on the most current technological advancements in the IT industry?

Additional resources 

Where can I find career resources for CIOs?

Other than pursuing a bachelor’s degree in a computer-related field, aspiring IT leaders should consider looking into certification programs. The Enterpriser’s Project outlined the following top seven IT management certifications for CIOs: 

  • Project Management Professional (PMP)
  • PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)
  • CompTIA Project+
  • Certified ScrumMaster (CSM)
  • Product Management from Pragmatic Institute
  • ITIL
  • Certified in the Governance of Enterprise IT (CGEIT)

Additional resources

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