The Seven Stages of a CIO Career

After nearly 30 years around the IT industry, I recently reflected on the experiences, key decisions and moments which shaped my career. This reflection was sparked by a reunion with colleagues from around the world at a friend’s wedding in India – many of whom I had not seen in years. Listening to their own adventures made me realize there might be a common arc. 

CIO Career Path

Like many good ideas, the idea started as a sketch on the nearest scrap of paper. (Side note: nothing is more CIO-like than trying to turn a rough sketch into a business model). Here is the original drawing that my partner Mike and I made on a hotel restaurant napkin.

The original intent of the sketch was to identify the type of CIO we want to join Perpetua Advisors. Our target profile is someone who has held the chair, but is ready for another challenge. We expanded this original sketch to describe the full career arc, identifying seven distinct stages as shown above. There are many paths to a CIO, but there are key turning points along the way. Each stage requires either a conscious (or unconscious) decision to continue. 

1) Apprentice

The entry point into the IT profession could include anything from software development to infrastructure support to help desk. Everyone in IT remembers their first job in IT, sometimes with fondness, other times with near-regret. Some people find IT, others wind up in IT.

The critical decision point usually comes relatively quickly, with the individual asking “Do I want to continue in this profession?” Exiting at this stage may only be temporary, with some people returning later to a higher stage. 

2) Workhorse

Once you have decided to continue, you now enter the “grinding” stage. You are often assigned to projects or technical roles with longer hours and more difficult challenges. You are likely to have many stumbles during this stage as you gain critical skills and experience. Frustration can be high, and helps contribute to the Business vs IT divide. 

This stage is marked by the critical decision point “Do I want to lead IT?” Or am I comfortable in my current role? Many talented IT professionals prefer to remain in an individual contributor role, and have no interest in managing IT or becoming a CIO. These professionals are the lifeblood of a healthy IT organization and may even lead large organizations within their area of IT specialty.

3) Fast Track

If you want to lead, the next stage is an opportunity to make a mark. It might be leading a key project, providing insight at the right time or even pure luck. It is during this stage that the individual gains visibility beyond the IT organization. They become a confidant or heir apparent to the current CIO and are often designated as high potential within a company’s HR career development program. It is also when outside recruiters start to call about potential CIO opportunities at another company.

This stage ends with the opportunity to become a full-fledged CIO, whether at their existing company or another organization. The internal decision process is “Am I ready?” and “Do I really want the job?” The alternative is to accept a role as the trusted #2 to the CIO or another inner circle position. Some individuals may like the idea of leading IT, but not want the political aspects of the job.

4) CIO

Now the fun starts and the “straight line” career arc becomes a roller coaster ride. The stage is marked by ups and downs driven by organizational changes, technology challenges, political battles, strategic shifts and more. This stage likely includes frequent headhunter calls and even job-hopping. A CIO’s career is very similar to a head coach in a professional sport, with the exact same job “security.”

The excitement of the ride will eventually turn into despair and frustration. Every CIO has a day where they wonder why they took the job in the first place. They may love what they do, but they still ask “Is it worth it?” The good news is that once you have the title, you will always have options. However, the day will come where you decide to get off the rollercoaster and take a different approach to your life and career.

5) Mentor/Consultant

If the CIO still wants to work, they often shift into an advisory role for a new CIO or new leadership team. Their insight and perspective helps provide a smooth transition to a new organization. The distinction is that they provide mostly advisory services, as opposed to leading an operational area of IT.

The individual can still provide immense value to an organization, but there is a use-by date for their expertise. At some point, the battle scars and experiences are no longer relevant. Valuable insight becomes tired cliches. It is up to the individual to exit when they realize they are repeating the same stories.

At this point, the person officially retires or becomes a consultant, whether on their own or through another firm. If they choose this path, they must either tailor their expertise to a new challenge or develop new skills.

6) Out of Touch

This is the danger zone within the arc of a CIO. The stories have officially become old, the skill set is out of date and the joys of solving problems have disappeared. Just like in sports, no one likes to admit they can’t play in the pros anymore. However, it is better to exit too soon than too late.  Everyone knows someone in this stage. Don’t let it be you.

7) Out to Pasture

This stage is not something to dread, but to enjoy. Become a user of the wonderful world of technology, not a manager of technology. Get a new mobile device. Learn new skills, but beware of social media. You can still be CIO of the household. All of the new technology still follows many the same rules as when you started in the IT industry many years ago. Yes, some of those stories are timeless, despite what the young guns say.

Epilogue

Everyone’s career path is different. Some CIOs even exit this arc for another path – like becoming CEO or starting their own companies. We hope fellow IT professionals look at their careers and celebrate their own rollercoaster ride.  My own journey included 3 separate exits and 2 re-entries, which I will share in a subsequent post. I have some great stories, but will always remember Stage 1.

P.S. If you are stuck in Stage 3 or nearing Stage 5, let’s talk!

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