Johanna Ambrosio
Contributing writer

What CIO certificate programs can do for your career

Mar 25, 2022 9 mins
Certifications IT Leadership IT Training 

IT leadership programs can help you gain key management insights and accelerate your network but still donu2019t beat hands-on experience for getting ahead.

certificate / gold seal certification
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If you’ve been recently promoted into the CIO role, or hope to be at some point, a CIO management-certificate program can help you learn how to think strategically, approach the job systematically and broadly, and communicate effectively with other executives in the C-suite. And they can help you resolve issues you may be grappling with in your own company.

Another big benefit, depending on the program: The opportunity to build your network of high-powered CIOs and other career influencers in a much shorter time than you would need to without the course. The coaching that comes with these programs — some at extra cost — is also extremely helpful, according to CIOs who have taken these courses.

These programs can also help get your resume noticed if you’re looking for a job or are already out of work, career coaches say.

No replacement for hands-on experience

But don’t expect the certification alone to help you land your next job. Especially at the management level, “you’re competing with people who have long-term experience,” says Jayne Mattson, principal of a career management consultancy that bears her name. A management certificate, no matter the pedigree, is no substitute for building your skills on the job.

“People go through it and feel more marketable, but don’t always do their research” before signing up, she says. To get a job, “you need to be out there talking to people and building your network.”

Some people “just want the piece of paper and don’t care about the course,” admits Dr. Jerry Luftman, founder and managing director of the Global Institute of IT Management (GIIM). His company works with colleges and universities around the world to deliver 35 certificate programs, one of which is geared specifically to CIOs.

People “don’t deserve” anything automatically — not even a promotion or raise — because they graduate from this type of program, he adds. It’s not about having a fancy new credential next to your name; the real result is learning skills to be better at your job, now and in the future. “There are no shortcuts,” he says.

Carnegie Mellon: Collaborating in cohorts

The CIO Certificate Program at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College is one such opportunity for IT leaders looking to learn and gain a credential. The program breaks participants into teams of four people who collaborate as part of a project (fictitious) company that’s been created for this purpose. Each team has a coach, with whom participants meet twice each month.

The 16-module, six-month-long curriculum requires a final project that includes a presentation to the company’s “board.” Modules include the role of the CIO, digital transformation, financial management strategies, the CIO’s role in product development, and data management for CIOs, among others.

The program runs twice each year, with 25 participants in each round, says David Ulicne, senior director of executive education at CMU’s Heinz College. They’re usually full up, even with tuition at $19,500. (That includes coaching.)

Approximately one-third of participants in the program are working CIOs, another third are senior IT managers or directors, and a third are executives from other departments who want or need to understand IT better.

All participants have at least five years of experience as managers, and there is an interview process to ensure applicants will be a good fit for the program, and vice versa. “Making the leap to the C-suite isn’t easy,” Ulicne says. “Our program is set up to help with communications, technology, business strategy, all the things they will need to know.” It’s geared for both breadth and depth, he adds.

Before the pandemic hit, some of the classes were held on CMU’s Pittsburgh campus over a weekend or two, but it’s all pretty much shifted to fully online now, with one in-person “touchpoint” midsession, Ulicne says. Students watch live courses for three hours a week, then do coursework for another 10 hours weekly, which includes online meetings with teammates and coaches.

GIIM: Flexibility in a leadership program

GIIM’s model is different. It creates four courses for each of its certificate programs, then works with accredited institutions to deliver them. Courses can be online or in-person; it depends on how the university wants to present them. GIIM also works with companies that want to create a training program for employees, Luftman says.

Most participants graduate from the Leadership in Business-IT Management program in four to six months, he explains, but there is some flexibility. Fees range from $3,000 to $6,000 per class, or $12,000 to $24,000 for the entire program. (Coaching is available for a separate fee.)

The least expensive option is asynchronous classes — where students watch prerecorded videos at whatever time they wish — but the more senior-level participants in the CIO curriculum prefer interacting in real-time, Luftman says. Still, students based outside the US sometimes find that asynchronous classes suit them better because of their work schedules.

Most of the participants in GIIM’s Leadership certificate program have 10 or more years of experience in IT. Courses include managing IT resources, strategic issues in IT, managing emerging technologies, and IT leadership. After graduation, students also receive certification from the Institute for Certification of Computing Professionals (ICCP).

GIIM’s edge, Luftman says, is in providing classes that feature the best and brightest academics and IT practitioners as faculty, as well as a lot of flexibility around when and how the classes are available. “The programs we offer are very rigorous,” he says. “We make them work hard and when they leave, they’re well-prepared.”

Additional CIO certificate programs

In addition to CMU’s and GIIM’s programs, other CIO-oriented education programs include:

Mixed feedback from graduates

Michael Smetana, vice president and director of business systems and applications at architectural firm Michael Baker International, graduated from CMU’s CIO program in May 2020. “It was really a fantastic growth experience,” he says.

Michael Smetana, vice president and director of business systems and applications, Michael Baker International

Michael Smetana, vice president and director of business systems and applications, Michael Baker International

Michael Baker International

“The program really challenged me, and I see my job differently now in terms of a growth mindset,” Smetana adds. “In IT we focus on what’s broken too often.” Now he can see opportunities for change and improvement. “At the end of the day, there’s a refreshed approach to leadership.”

One of the biggest benefits was the “instant network” of experienced IT executives that “would take many years to replicate” outside of the CMU environment. They regularly share job leads, among other things, he says.

In fact, Smetana was so impressed that he later took CMU’s certificate program for chief data officers.

Catherine M. White, head of AI and machine learning at consultancy Yates Ltd., graduated from GIIM’s certificate program in 2012. At the time she found the program very helpful to fill in some of what was missing from her computer-science education. “I can code in 27 different languages, but [my degree] didn’t prepare me for managing people,” she says. GIIM helped her do that.

Catherine M. White, head of AI and machine learning, Yates

Catherine M. White, head of AI and machine learning, Yates


“It’s really good stuff because they integrated the workload with what you were doing in your job so you could get a real feel for the application of the content,” she says. “I would do it again in a heartbeat if I was still in a corporate position.”

That said, she admits, she doesn’t “remember half of what I learned” in that program, or most of the certification courses she’s taken, for that matter. In addition to her bachelor’s and master’s degree education, the one program she remembers most vividly is a two-week technology-management intensive at Smith College. White was working at a New York bank at the time, and she and 30 other women from the same firm attended this “deep immersion” class together; it was considered a huge perk.

“It was fantastic,” she recalls. “It was quite hands-on and we relied on each other to be successful” in the exercises. “I was forced to do things like sales, which I was uncomfortable with.”

Most of the certificate programs White has attended are what she considers “foundational; things you build on.” She’s earned certifications in Six Sigma, ITIL, and numerous other areas. That said, she feels that programs like GIIM’s are good for someone who is between one-third and halfway through their career, “to help them identify gaps and get to the next level.”

One example, she says, is that many techies can “talk all day long” about the benefits of databases versus blockchain for various types of applications. But managers need to understand “the personality type you’re looking for” when filling a job on your blockchain or database team.

“I’ve taken every class under the sun,” she explains, many because she needed a specific certification at a specific point in her career. But she’s also a big fan of learning new things that are trending, just to learn. “If you’re not doing something every six to 10 months,” she says, “you fall behind.”