Tech career paths: Where do CIOs go next?

CIO Strategies: Taking a look at the options for the tech chief beyond the traditional CIO role.

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Research suggests CIOs have never been happier; but being IT leader for an end-user firm won't suit everyone, and some CIOs are taking advantage of the fast-changing job market and grasping new opportunities. So, how are these IT leaders developing their careers? ZDNet takes best practice advice from four CIOs who have taken a step outside of the classic enterprise tech chief role.

Start your own advisory business

Ian Cohen left his role as group CIO at insurance firm Jardine Lloyd Thompson at the end of 2014. Rather than sit back and consider his options, the experienced IT leader - who had previously held leadership positions at Associated Newspapers, the FT and Lloyds Bank - decided to turn in a different direction.

Cohen now works as digital advisor, helping blue-chip firms understand and develop their own unique digital journeys, as well as holding several hands-on non-executive and board advisory roles with some of London's brightest start-up and scale-up companies.

"I left the insurance sector, where I was viewed as a disrupter, and went straight into working with real disrupters in Shoreditch and across London," he says. "I didn't want a rest. For me, it was a wonderful opportunity to get back to the immediacy I enjoyed during my time in the media sector, but at an even faster pace, and to also get practical experience of working in this fast-paced community."

Lucky CIOs, says Cohen, will love the new things they try. However, the move away from IT leadership can be bad news for firms that lose their CIOs. Cohen says more organisations should give senior staff the chance to experiment while they're still on the payroll.

"It may not stop someone talented from leaving your firm, but it might," he says. "And if they do still leave, that should be a positive thing - it's all about greater talent joining and enriching an already vibrant community. In the end, everyone wins if there's more talent out there."

Create a portfolio career

Some forward-thinking organisations are already giving experienced IT leaders the room to experiment. Take Mark Foulsham, who is developing an entirely new working model. After moving beyond IT and into operations as group CIO of esure, Foulsham looked for a new challenge at the end of 2016, following more than a decade with the insurance specialist. He is now mixing the demands of a new chief digital officer post at Scope with a portfolio career.

Foulsham spent his first six-or-so months at Scope working full-time for the charity. He is now down to about four days a week. Foulsham is flexible in terms of how much time he needs to commit to the charity and how much time he spends developing his other interests.

"I talked to people who had made a similar transition at this stage in their careers," he says. "If you want to do a plurality of roles, you can't just box work away into an eight-hour shift. You can't just join a new organisation and work part-time, especially given some of the aims for business transformation we have at Scope."

However, Foulsham expects the blend to work well. He recently released a self-published book on the potential impact of the General Data Protection Regulation and is focusing on other initiatives, including consulting projects and CIO coaching. "It's exactly what I wanted to do having worked in one organisation for a very long time," he says.

Keep an eye out for other c-suite positions

Andrew Abboud is another IT leader who has swapped day-to-day management for expert consultancy. He left his role as CIO at Laureate Education at the end of 2015. After three months away from work to clear his mind, Abboud established his own CIO consultancy service. "It's something I've always wanted to do - I've worked as CIO for consulting firms during my career, but I'd never actually been a consultant," he says.

Earlier in his career, Abboud held senior IT positions at consultants PWC, PA Consulting and Detica. He held the CIO position at City University, London between 2008 and 2011, before spending four years with Laureate in Switzerland. Now back in the UK, Abboud is building his portfolio career.

Unlike some of his peers that have made a permanent switch to advisory roles, Abboud is open to new opportunities in the c-suite. He says he enjoys the daily cut and thrust of the CIO role but would also consider alternative CxO positions. Abboud was previously group director of enabling services at Detica, where he oversaw a range of non-IT functions, including facilities, procurement and knowledge management.

"I would be interested in a COO role and people I've worked for have suggested I should be an operating chief or even a CEO," he says. "I've always been obsessed with delivering business benefits. But I do enjoy being a CIO - it's a great role. What other c-suite position gives you the opportunity to understand in detail all the various elements of the business?"

Move into the vendor world

IT leaders can also make the decision to move from the end-user to the vendor side. Mark Settle is CIO at identity management specialist Okta and it is the latest in a long line of IT leadership appointments. He has worked across a wide spectrum of companies and sectors, working for both end-user organisations and vendor IT firms.

"CIOs in big enterprises with a large user base and a whole bunch of legacy applications often face a slog, where they have to deal with customisation, upgrades and elements that the business people don't really want to know about," says Settle. "You can spend a lot time thinking about things that no one outside cares about and it can be a grind."

CIOs at vendors still focus on operational concerns, of course. However, there can be a more direct relationship with both systems and customers - and that can be great news for IT leaders who like to shape technology services. "When you get to do my kind of job in a technology firm, you get to do two kinds of things," says Settle.

"First, you get to provide feedback to your own R&D department about what we, as an IT department, like and don't like about the products we produce. Second, you get to share your experiences with prospective customers. And that's the fun part for a technologist - you can have more of an impact on product development."

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