Climbing the career ladder: What do you need on your CV to make it to the top in tech?

What's the best way to advance your tech career? Recruiters and CIOs explain how to find a career path that leads to the top.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor on
How should CIOs play the career game to win?
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What is the best way to develop your career as a CIO? Should you work your way up to the top in one IT department, should you spend time in other business disciplines or should you consider a move into other related positions, such as CDO, analyst, board advisor, consultant or interim CIO?

We hear from IT experts who consider the best way to develop a career as a technology leader, both in terms of taking broader responsibility for business issues and defining how technology can add value to the wider organisation.

Moving out of the data centre and into lines-of-business

Top Right Group IT director Sean Harley says his career has covered three main areas so far. First, IT operations and 'keeping the lights on'; second, systems management and optimisation; and then, finally, becoming an IT director with responsibility for strategy.

"Working for so many different types of companies in different types of role has provided me with some great experience," he says. "Working for a vendor allowed me to talk to lots of different CIOs and helped me understand the wide range of issues businesses can face. It provided a great preparation for moving into the IT director role. I got a fully-rounded view of how technology can be used to solve business challenges."

Harley also spent a year working in information security and assurance for consultant E&Y. "The exposure to senior people is a real plus," he says. "It provides a lot of lessons." Harley also spent time working in several start-ups, including consumer analytics specialist Sky IQ. "Working for those kinds of new businesses provides a real buzz," he says.

And Harley recognises the education process never stops, even for IT leaders at the top of the game. "To become a great CIO, I will probably need to take more of a business role at some stage," he says. "That might mean moving into something like a COO role, which will help me as IT leader to understand deeply the integration between technology and business."

Taking on responsibility for other business areas is the kind of recognised career path that resonates with Chris Chandler, head of the CIO practice at recruitment specialist La Fosse Associates. He says there are many potential routes to becoming a CIO, so there is no perfect career path.

However, he says La Fosse tends to see the fastest and most successful route to the top is for an individual to excel in one or more discipline, and to then develop other responsibilities at the summit. "Switching disciplines is often viewed with caution at a management level and, therefore, can lead to apprehension about an individual's motivations, interests or even capability," he says, before echoing Harley's suggestion that great leaders look to assume accountability.

"Obviously, taking on a new role in addition to existing responsibilities is only ever seen as a positive re-enforcement of an IT professional's leadership qualities," says Chandler. He says La Fosse often looks for the tell-tale signs that an individual is being groomed as the successor to the CIO.

"The most obvious of these is when a direct report to the CIO is repositioned into an IT department that is not aligned to their obvious career path, for example a director of programmes being transitioned into a director of applications development position," says Chandler.

"This is usually an indicator that the company is consciously broadening the experience of a successor. This practice is becoming increasingly prevalent, which gives credence to the need for future CIOs to have experience in leading multiple departments rather than a single discipline exclusively."

Understanding what IT can do for the rest of the organisation

Alastair Behenna, an experienced IT leader and consultant at The CIO Partnership, says the consumerisation of technology presents new challenges for executives looking to reach the top. "We are all technologists these days. We are inextricably bound to technology in both our private and in our personal lives. You can't avoid it," he says.

"For the CIO, with an ambition to flourish and assume a rightful place at the board table, just being the provider of technology systems and services isn't enough. Technology must be shaped and crafted to meet the ambitions of the modern digital company, removing points of friction and joining employees, customers, suppliers and partners in a prosperous coalition of mutual advantage."

Behenna recognises the challenge of acquiring, understanding and making full use of that level of digital knowledge to enhance an IT leadership careers. In his experience, he says the only real and effective way for CIOs to focus on personal development is to lead or be part of another business function and become responsible, and accountable, for their results.

"Software-as-a-service, big data, the cloud and the Internet of Things are just buzzwords until you turn the technology behind them into a commercial advantage," says Behenna. "You won't know how to do that unless you fully understand how the business makes its money and how all that fits into the wider commercial context of your business and market."

He says in-depth business knowledge also positions and empowers CIOs to understand the corporate ecosystem, the start points and the endpoints which are increasingly situated outside an IT leader's absolute control. By having an understanding of the entire ecosystem, CIOs significantly enhance their ability to develop cyber security measures that enhance and protect corporate assets.

"Its not what the technology is - frankly, who cares - it's what the technology can actually do for the company," says Behenna. "Very obviously, to lead and prosper as a CIO requires an innate and in-depth understanding of the business, and the many functions that imbue its essence and create its commercial success."

Like Behenna, Stephen Hand, former CIO and principal consultant at Consult 360, stresses the importance of line-of-business experience. He says that - while there is no single route to being a successful CIO - he has always placed great emphasis on the role of the CIO being an IT professional who uses their professional expertise to create value for the business in which he or she works.

"Working in a range of IT disciplines is necessary but not sufficient," says Hand. "The vital ingredient is gaining the business knowledge and relationships that enable the CIO to recognise how to create value most effectively. It isn't absolutely necessary to have worked in a non-IT role but I think it will become increasingly useful."

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