by CIO Staff

Planning Your Career: Developing a Balance Between Tech and Management

Dec 01, 200010 mins

Q: I’m 33 years old, I have seven years of IT experience as a developer and project manager, and already make a six-figure salary. My career goals include becoming a CEO by way of the CIO/CTO position. My undergraduate degree is in computer science, and I’m working on two master’s degrees in business administration and finance. I spend about 90 percent of my off-hours learning about the business side and the rest on the technical. Since a CIO-level position is probably not my next move, am I spending too much time looking far into the future? Should I be spending more time on the technical issues that have led me to where I am now? Is there a proper balance between the two?

A: You are doing just fine. To have such a clear and articulate vision of your career goal—and to be able to prepare for it early—is an exceptional gift. Over the course of an IT career, the balance of the technical and the nontechnical (business and leadership) content is a blend that starts out nearly 100 percent technical and winds up nearly 100 percent nontechnical. Your current role as project manager, while it will indeed vary from company to company and from project to project, should be about fifty-fifty. So you are at the point of equal emphasis and are certainly heading more strongly toward the softer side of your skill set. The MBA is right on target, and the master’s in finance could be a real help in ultimately running a business or a corporation. Because you are doing these at the same time, you should focus your MBA on topics other than finance, such as marketing, e-commerce and management.

Pure-Play Counseling

Q: I am the operations manager at a midsize investment company, and I have built the department from scratch. I have extensive technology and management experience, but I am lacking specific business knowledge and application software development experience. In the meantime, I am finishing my bachelor’s degree in business management. I study business and finance, and I plan to continue my education toward an MBA. I’m just not sure what I can or should do next. I think I could be a great IT leader—CIO or CTO—but I enjoy being both a first- and mid-level manager. I am very comfortable with day-to-day operations but would like more experience with planning and strategy. How should I be spending my time in my current job, and what schooling should I look for a year from now?

A: This is pure-play career counseling: You are a perfect candidate for a small shop CIO! You enjoy the everyday operational and managerial activities, and you are also attracted to the more managerial, administrative and strategic facets of IT. In a small shop, you can be the top IS leader and still remain close to the firing lines. Focus both your work and further educational efforts on acquiring a more balanced background in business issues and systems topics like enterprise re-source planning, customer relationship management and e-commerce, which will supplement the technical and IT operational expertise that you have mastered.

Temporary Fixes

Q: What does your research show regarding companies that use temporary CIOs until they find a permanent executive? Is this an increasing trend? And which sourcing companies are placing executives in this temporary capacity?

A: Upon losing a chief information officer, the vast majority of enterprises will quickly move to either promote from within or engage the services of an executive search company to look outside the organization. In the latter case, the CIO’s direct supervisor and occasionally a member of the CIO’s staff or a non-IT senior manager from another department will most often take control of the IT function until a replacement can be found. It is generally viewed as more disruptive to bring a short-term, temporary CIO from the outside and create change, only to repeat the process a few months later when the search is completed.

In a growing number of instances where IS is not fulfilling its charter or is a troubled department, a “hired gun” CIO is engaged for the purpose of not only management continuity but also of turning the shop around and preparing it to be taken over by a permanent steward. The leading search companies in this space are staffed by former CIOs who have moved on to a consulting business model: Aligne (Philadelphia), the Feld Group (Dallas) and Transition Partners (Reston, Va.).

Patience Is a Virtue

Q: I’m a young database administrator, one year out of college, who recently and unexpectedly was promoted to data warehouse manager as the result of attrition.

On paper I have one year of IT experience, but like many in my generation, I’ve used computers for many years. As such, I’m quite comfortable with my technical background, and instead of studying mostly IT, I spent much of college trying to improve my leadership skills. While I’m delighted with my progress, my background puts me in an awkward position in a fairly large and conservative IS department. IS management attracts and engages me, but there is a “pay your dues” atmosphere that I do not know how to confront. I don’t want to spend the next three or four years proving my merit on strictly technical terms—I’ve been doing that as a matter of course for much longer than nearly anyone in my department. I’m eager for more opportunities to participate in the process of envisioning and implementation. What to do?

A: Well, first let me congratulate you on your promotion. Second, let me counsel you that the next skill for you to acquire is patience. I know, I know. I was once a young buck, too, and I thought that I knew it all then—but I still don’t! Your technical expertise, which spans far more than your one year of on-the-job training, has indeed been recognized. It’s clear that you have been able to leverage the depth of your technical background into an early fast track in your professional career.

Now it’s time to get the seasoning and maturing that only time can provide, regardless of how smart you are or how many years you have been computerized. As they say, there is no substitute for experience. Don’t confuse your many years of hands-on computing and your college experience with experience in actual hands-on professional management of people, resources and corporate processes and politics. And while you are practicing and honing your leadership skills, seek out opportunities to do more in the areas of departmental strategy, planning and administration. Volunteer yourself and watch what happens.

In for the Long Haul

Q: I am a knowledge engineer in a corporate IS department with a focus on driving the removal of the root causes of IS-related problems and preparing IS customer service as new applications and other corporate initiatives are rolled out. I have 15 years experience and plan to stay with my current employer until retirement. My formal education is a bachelor’s degree in computer science. I am returning to college for my MBA next year. Which MBA specialty would most help me advance my career?

A: Wow, I haven’t heard that kind of loyalty statement in quite a while, especially from someone of your assumed age group of professionals with 15 years experience. Having said that, I could not begin to answer your question since you haven’t told me what type of career path—technical, IT management, general management—you wish to pursue. Let your head and heart drive that decision, and then concentrate your studies on the appropriate and corresponding content. Also, since you plan to stay at that lucky company until gold watch time, add content relevant to your industry (for example, manufacturing, retailing, financial services and so on).

On Leave

Q: I am enrolled in an MBA program and have elected to emphasize IT in my studies. I am also a new mother and would like to use the program to gain IT knowledge and skills that allow me to work from my home and spend more time with my child (and eventually children) while earning a decent income. What types of jobs and careers are best suited for a telecommuting scenario?

A: If you were a current corporate employee about to go on maternity leave, you and your employer would do well to set up any number of scenarios for continuing your work. Since you would already have knowledge of the company’s business, processes, practices and the players therein, you could telecommute or work a combination of some days in the office and some days at home, and still make a significant contribution both technically and otherwise. In this case, however, it would be difficult to do much beyond subcontracted consulting, doing technically oriented development work remotely, or perhaps a combination of analysis and programming if you could get out and visit the client occasionally. Focus your MBA content on acquiring current state-of-the-art technical expertise, but don’t ignore the management, finance, sales and marketing training that you will put to good use later on when you return to corporate life.

Health-Care Bound?

Q: I will complete my Juris Doctor and MBA with an emphasis in health-care administration and e-business in a year. During my schooling, I have dreamed of becoming a CIO. While interning in the corporate IS department of a large health-care delivery network, I found that most people seem to be doing very little tangible work or analysis. I want a career in which there is a lot of decision making, analysis, teamwork, brainstorming, interaction and broad skill development. If I still want to be a health-care CIO, what type of job am I qualified for and what should I seek after graduation? Some have suggested being an analyst, but I fear that requires technical experience that I don’t have.

A: In many ways, the advice you have received is pointed in the right direction. The broad category of analyst covers a lot of ground, and your best bet for leveraging your fine academic credentials and fulfilling your avowed vocational interests would be a position as a business analyst or, as it is often called, a business systems analyst. By any name, the role I refer to is one in which you spend a great amount of time with both business line management as well as information technology staff. Critical activities include aligning the IT strategy with the business unit’s needs, reengineering business processes for operational efficiency and competitive advantage, participating in developing new business products and services as well as new revenue models and channels such as e-commerce.

To complicate matters, this type of position often reports to the business side rather than IT. In either case, you will be developing and exercising your analytical, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills while developing a strong working knowledge of the company’s business, processes and operations.

As for becoming a CIO, spend some time in analysis before you cast that one in concrete. Time and experience will either reinforce that goal, in which case you should then build a technology/IT line management track record on top of your analytical foundation, or you may find yourself seeking operating management experience. Either way, I wouldn’t recommend taking a job at your interning company—they seem to be asleep at the wheel!