by Clint Boulton

Millennials want to be digital entrepreneurs, not CIOs

Apr 08, 2016
CareersCIOIT Leadership

Despite the rising popularity in digital transformations, one college professor says his students want no part of the CIO role, let alone IT.

millennials digital entrepreneurs
Credit: Thinkstock

Roughly 100 CIOs from large corporations met at the Forbes CIO Summit in Half Moon Bay, Calif. last monthto share ideas and accept awards for their IT successes. They listened to Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman and CEO Marc Benioff sound off on how crucial the CIO role is to the business. More specifically, CEOs are entrusting their CIOs to conduct digital transformations, essentially migrating to software many services that had been previously operated manually.

Whitman said IT and business strategy are interlocked, with the CIO “central” to ensuring successful outcomes. But in the Cadillac of endorsements for the role, CEO Marc Benioff discussed how CIOs who led successful digital transformations would become CEOs.

[ Related: Meg Whitman tells CIOs everything they need to know ]

Yet there is another narrative playing outside the insular, Fortune 500-fat bubble of such events.

CIO role gets no love from millennials

Tom Davenport, distinguished professor of IT and Management at Babson College.

Tom Davenport, distinguished professor of IT and Management at Babson College.

Millennials see other opportunities to make a healthy living in technology without taking on some of the onerous responsibilities of the CIO’s job, says Tom Davenport, distinguished professor of IT and Management at Babson College, which is known for its entrepreneurial programs. Sure, but where do we work it in? Davenport, who wrote a column about this issue that Fortune published just days after the Forbes event, says his students want to go start their own company, seeking their fortunes by building the next unicorn. “Today, none of my students wants to become a CIO or even to work in IT. They are interested in being digital entrepreneurs and innovators,” he wrote.

He recalls teaching CIO-wannabes at the University of Texas at Austin in 1996. At that time, the best job in IT was being a CIO. Good pay and the ability to manage teams of people installing client-server systems, maintaining email, implementing ERP systems and connecting cables in data centers. The CIO often reported to the CFO, who tightly controlled IT spending. Yet the job was viewed with a certain respect. Companies with CIOs managing large IT departments were progressive and forward-thinking.

Fast forward to today and CIOs are beset by hackers, pulling their hair out over rationalizing legacy hardware and software, and managing cloud vendors over whom they often have little control. Playing the undesirable “wet blanket” role, some CIOs must also banish unsanctioned cloud services or mobile devices to protect the company’s data.

Davenport says another problem dulling any shine the CIO role may have is managing digital products and services or big data is “hived off” to chief digital officers, chief data officers, and chief analytics officers who don’t necessarily report to the CIO. “If all those roles are getting created it often means that the stuff left for the CIO is keeping the lights on and running basic systems and applications that keep the business going but not the really exciting stuff,” Davenport told in a recent interview. In other words, where is all of the fun in being a CIO?

[ Related: 7 things millennials are looking for at work ]

A lot can change, of course, for these undergraduates Davenport is mentoring between the time they are in school and when they land in their first jobs. Most CIOs fall into their jobs, often rising through IT or business group ranks to reach the top spot. And many who do are hardly technologists but rather business executives with technology backgrounds.

CIOs role becoming more business-focused

World Bank CIO Stephanie von Friedeburg

World Bank CIO Stephanie von Friedeburg.

CIOs say their roles are much more about business strategy than technology. World Bank CIO Stephanie von Friedeburg says that the CIO role at large businesses involves bringing technology to bear on strategy and collaborating across the enterprise’s business lines. CIOs must communicate with boardsand accept more governance responsibilities. While such functions may not appeal to hardcore technologists, they certainly appeal to business-minded executives, she says.

“I actually think the CIO role is becoming a more interesting role for people who have the business background, the finance background and interest in the strategic linkage between what the organization is trying to do and how does the technology get them there,” von Friedeburg says. Proper execution of these tasks requires CIOs to learn all aspects of the business, including what customers expect.

Von Friedeburg says she knows how every business process runs at the bank and has the biggest budget with which to work. She knows how a loan gets processed, how the bank moves money and how HR processes new hires. She sees where things work, or don’t, and where she needs to make changes. In no other role at World Bank would this be possible.

[ Related: Attracting millennials starts with digital tech ]

John Shaffer, CIO of financial advisory Greenhill Partners, says that technologists might be able to throw together a software-defined network or implement a CRM system but can they get it to work efficiently to best serve the business? He says the most successful CIOs today, while maybe not as technical as those from the past, have a deep understanding of what the business needs.

“There’s tons of good technology but you need it to drive it from what business people are looking for to solve problems,” Shaffer told Plus, there’s “always going to be new challenges and the CIO has to figure out what those are,” he says.

For those reasons, Elaine Cheng, CIO of CFA Institute, says the role remains the most exciting role one in the organization, enabling it to grow a deep bench of future CIOs hailing from different business groups in organizations. “CIOs still get the opportunity to work across divisions, innovate with their business partners and are in the center of transformations. We spend our days thinking about how to grow our business through technology,” Cheng adds.

That is a salient point. Nearly every company is facing challenges as it transitions to the digital age, whether it’s how to get their new mobile app working as well on a tablet or smartphone, or how to normalize the data they’ve just dumped into their new data warehouse. Such tasks, part of broader digital transformations in which CIOs are migrating to code existing business processes, are well under way at most Fortune 500 firms. We’ve yet to see the fruits of those labors because these projects, which require senior managers and the rank-and-file to pull together in one direction, take several years.

Davenport says that some CIOs are making game-changing moves for their companies, pointing to Intel’s Kim Stevenson and former Procter & Gamble CIO Filippo Passerini. But he says such CIOs who can not only complete such transformations but recognize a return on investment from them are in short supply.

“There certainly are some visionary CIOs but not nearly enough of them and I don’t think the job is as desirable as it used to be,” Davenport says. “I don’t think [the CIO role] going away anytime soon. I would just like to see it revitalized by more vision, more business change.”