CIO heaven

At a recent debate attended by a number of the UK’s top CIOs, one panellist commented that the tenancy of the CIO is becoming so short-lived that many could not hope to stay in their roles for more than two years.

It is a startling claim. But one that holds an element of truth: When IT projects go awry, the CIO is frequently the scapegoat and handed their P45; when projects are implemented on time and to budget, they invariably seek out new positions where they can build on their success.

The changing job description of the CIO also helps explain why this position has become so ephemeral. Organisations are not just looking for leaders who understand technology, they want business leaders who can steer a mission-critical technology unit in line with its strategic directives and help it generate bottom-line profits.

These changes in job roles are being reflected in CIO appointments: increasing numbers of CIOs have worked previously in operational roles across the breadth of the organisation; it is no longer just a position for the most senior IT specialist.

For those professionals having toiled hard at building their technical expertise, this presents a conundrum? If the CIO positions are being filled from elsewhere within the company, what is the next logical career progression? For many, the answer would seem to be consultancy.

As is often the case, the US leads the way. There, former CIOs and top-level IT managers from organisations such as Campbell's Soup, Subaru America, Sony, General Electric, EDS, Oracle and Nissan are all now working as consultants.

“The great thing about being a consultant is that you are not woken up at four in the morning on a Saturday because the disk drive died,” says Jim McAssey, principal at The W Group, a technology management consulting firm. “After many years in production roles, a lot of [technologists] don’t want the operational side of being a CIO, but there is a lot of strategy and advisory work where their skills and experiences are needed.”

The W Group is typical of a number of growing consultancies that recruit only CIOs or senior IT staff that have significant experience – 20 years is typical.

And the attraction of hiring consultants that have demonstrable track records in IT operations is clear. Many enterprise architecture projects, such as a SAP or Oracle implementation, for example, can be a “once in a lifetime implementation”, says Charles Ward, chief operating officer at Intellect, the UK IT trade association. “[The project] goes through phases, but the implementation stage might only happen once every 4-5 years and so might be the point at which you need the highest level of skills,” he says.

Mergers and acquisitions offer another possibility for ex-CIOs to provide invaluable guidance on the task of integrating systems from one company into another.

What is happening is that people are much more mobile in their careers, says Jo Causon, director of marketing and public affairs at the Chartered Management Institute. The changing demographics in the UK and a skill shortage across all sectors, including management, means a bigger movement of people into new roles, including consultancy, she says.

The W Group’s McAssey agrees and says that there is life after being a CIO: “Most of the consultants are type-A personalities who do not want to sit back and play golf all day. This is part of the benefit: they want to have intellectually challenging work and they want to pass along what they have learnt through their years of experience,” he says.

Lee Biggins

Lee Biggins developed as an entrepreneur selling cold cans of fizzy drinks to fishermen on hot days, to running his own car washing empire as a teenager. This spirit carried through to the developmental...

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