by Laurie Orlov

Why Specific Tech Experience Shouldn’t Define the CIO Resume

Aug 27, 20086 mins

Even when companies say they want a CIO with detailed technical knowledge, fulfilling their expectations can prevent you from being effective.

Don’t you love the idiocy of some CIO job descriptions? They’re the ones that demand skills in configuring servers, designing the website, creating a long-term strategy, 20 years of experience plus a deep track record in a subbranch of financial services. Or that specify knowledge of an arcane, perhaps obsolete technology. In my perusal of ads on recently, I even saw one for a bank that required the ability to lift at least 15 pounds.

Does experience with a specific technology category or product matter? Not so much. Let’s think about both the technology requirements of most CIO jobs and what are (or should be) the drivers behind an enterprise intent on recruiting those requirements. Most of the time, companies that require a CIO candidate to possess specific technical skills are shooting themselves in the foot. Here’s why, even if you meet the criteria and get the job, you shouldn’t define your role based only on those qualifications.

A Screening Mechanism

CIOs make good money. Their compensation averages $237,000, according to CIO’s “State of the CIO 2008” survey. At that pay level, the job will certainly involve managing (or hiring and then managing) a staff. Unless we’re talking about a startup company, the person who is hired will inherit existing technologies along with a posse of eager tech and services vendors. Most CIO openings specify a minimum of 10-plus years of experience—and more in the larger firms. And with that experience, most enterprises expect to see a long and successful track record of implementing application projects.

Firms are also increasingly intent on using technology to change processes, get new products up and running quickly, compete more effectively for customers and provide better service. They want CIOs they can understand (no techno-speak, please) and who understand business. So even if a CIO enters with a laundry list of technical experience that matches what the company asked for in the job description, chances are she’s going to spend virtually no time in the new job using those skills.

In reality, technology requirements in CIO job descriptions are there to discourage candidates from other industries that use different products or from other departments of the same enterprise who are familiar with existing processes but not with the specific products that support them. Detailed technology requirements give the HR recruiter a checklist for eliminating candidates, not a way to find innovative thinkers who can bring a fresh perspective on compelling business changes.

Instead, CIO job postings should be less specific. Biotech companies shouldn’t mandate biotech company experience. Hospitals shouldn’t look only at candidates who have implemented a specific healthcare package. In some geographical locations, that could narrow the field to fewer than five people, four of whom have jobs they like and won’t leave.

Companies should identify thorny enterprise pain areas (weak change management, cumbersome sales processes, lack of standard customer service processes) or other problems and should look at individuals with a track record for solving such problems. Most firms will benefit from talking with candidates from industries other than their own and with professional backgrounds other than IT.

Asking such candidates how they would tackle the organization’s thorniest problems could reveal refreshing insights and new possibilities, even if the candidate isn’t selected. Enterprise execs generally look at candidates with backgrounds other than IT or outside their industries only when they are extremely frustrated by current IT performance. But that doesn’t have to be the only time to seek a variety of experiences.

Even recruiters for large companies make this mistake. They’re often looking to poach a name-brand CIO from another company of the same size and industry. They look for someone who has done a transformational project exactly matching the proposed project of the search client’sa broad-based SAP implementation, a global CRM system.

What they should want is someone from another industry who has demonstrated process or innovation mastery, regardless of which package he implemented and perhaps regardless of whether he was a CIO or a business project champion.

When Technical Knowledge Is Necessary

Sometimes a firm needs a CIO with deep technical knowledge. Several factors come into play here, including:

Company size and growth potential. The smaller the firm and the greater the likelihood it will remain small, the greater its need for a hands-on CIO. A small shop needs someone who understands how networks are configured, who can debug PC problems and sync up cell phones and e-mail servers with one hand while advising the CEO on new app purchases and device trends with the other.

Startup companies especially need a startup IT leader who can do as well as lead. An ex-consultant with years of hands-on experience can be ideal as a CIO.

Staff size and ability to hire. If there are fewer than 15 people in IT, the CIO is really a manager. No matter how you subdivide the organization, you can’t make a technology decision without becoming heavily involved in reviewing the choices and clearly understanding the differences between vendors and products. This CIO must have strong familiarity with all of IT’s technical span of control, even as he has to bond with other business execs and grasp business strategy.

As the organization grows, the CIO can develop a team of leaders and individual contributors who have the experience in a specific category or topic and can stand in the CIO’s stead when negotiating with vendors and service providers. These CIOs are best cultivated from the ranks of the current apps or infrastructure managers regardless of industry.

When to Leave Tech Details Behind

Some CIOs with tech backgrounds just love fiddling and are constantly tempted to gravitate to their tech roots. They become CIO hobbyists: playing with new tools and websites, helping the CEO with laptop or cell phone problems, meddling in and second-guessing the assignments of their staff.

These CIOs hide behind these distractions as a way to avoid investing time and energy into learning about their peers, the businesses they run and their top challenges. If you’re one of these CIOs, you risk leaving business execs with a strong impression that you’re a sandbox CIO with lots of toys and time to spend on tasks that should be delegated.

Overly techie CIOs who ignore their business relationships will eventually be fired by frustrated execs, who may be doomed to repeat history, getting the same kind of CIO the next time based on a techie job description and screened candidates whose skills exactly match it.