What Does a CIO Really Do?

CIO job description

CIO stands for Chief Information Officer: the person who strategizes and leads IT, and who communicates about technology projects between IT and the business units. Ultimately the CIO is responsible for IT delivering shareholder value.

The actual CIO job description differs widely depending on the size of the company and the value and budget they attach to IT. In general, the smaller the company the more hands-on the CIO will be. Exceptions include small companies with big computing needs and expenditures, such as a boutique brokerage firm.

Whether or not the CIO has some hands-on responsibilities, they certainly have responsibility for aligning IT priorities and targets with high-level business objectives. To accomplish this, they need to have a working relationship with the executive team (whether or not they are officially a team member). They also need an excellent working relationship with IT.

System efficiency is also important for the CIO. Although you probably will not see the CIO disappear under someone’s desk to check their cabling, you do want a CIO who has armed IT with monitoring equipment, and who tracks computing efficiency across the organization. The CIO must also be aware that the IT department is serving governance.

The popular conception of the humorless, highly technical CIO misses the mark, since a big part of CIO success is the ability to work closely with others. Close working relationships include the CEO and CFO, and at some companies the COO. A newer and very promising relationship is between the CIO and the CMO. This seems somewhat unlikely until you factor in the increasing role of marketing technology. Digital marketing is big and getting bigger, and the marketing department relies on IT to support marketing automation and channel marketing technologies. And if the CIO is involved in supporting marketing strategy, then IT can prove its high value role in winning and keeping customers.

What Should a CIO Know?

One common disagreement is how technical the CIO should be. Some companies take the position that the only person who can understand IT comes out of IT, while others care only that their CIO has proven business experience.

Frankly, the latter is never a good idea. It is possible for CIOs without a technical background to make it but it’s harder and takes longer. IT will not trust such a CIO, and the CIO will lack the background to make strategic decisions on major IT projects. On the other hand, the CIO cannot simply be a technologist. They still need to demonstrate clear business understanding and strategic business decisions.

A successful CIO will demonstrate both hard and soft skills. Hard skills include the ability to establish frameworks for IT purchases and strategies, policies to guide security and governance, hiring IT directors and managers, project oversight, partnerships with service providers and vendors, and analyzing IT’s impact.

CIO soft skills include the ability to communicate well upwards and downwards: able to shift languages between the business concerns of the C-suite and the technology concerns of IT. Successful CIOs are smart people who are able to communicate optimism, calm, and deep strategic thinking to very different groups of people. Strong analytics skills are a necessity and a sense of humor is a distinct plus.

CIO Job Description

A typical CIO job description will look like the following. Although you will see CIO job descriptions that contain a lot of hands-on responsibilities, that type of job listing is close to an IT director or manager. A CIO should understand technology, but must also understand strategizing major technology projects and communicating value and results to senior management.

  • Provide strategic oversight and tactical planning, development, evaluation, and coordination of information and technology systems.
  • Set standards for IT recruitment and ongoing personnel development.
  • Set objectives, strategies, policies, and tools for the IT department.
  • Establish working partnerships with major vendors and service providers.
  • Facilitate communication between all technology stakeholders including IT staff, business units, management, and vendors.
  • Participate in contract negotiations for technology projects.
  • Assess value, costs, and risk of new IT projects and communicate to senior management; monitor and evaluate implementation.
  • Establish and monitor standards for security, performance, and governance.
  • Learn technology trends and advances, and drive adoption for competitive advantage.

Ultimately the CIO is not an IT director with a senior title; they are an executive who must align technology with business, and be able to communicate IT’s business value with business leaders.