If you want to become a CIO, now is a good time to make that move. The career ladder generally goes: IT worker, manager, director, executive director, CIO. Our panel of experts discuss how to create a plan to get you on that next rung of the ladder.

If you want to become a CIO, now is a good time to make that move. The career ladder generally goes: IT worker, manager, director, executive director, CIO. Our panel of experts discuss how to create a plan to get you on that next rung of the ladder.

It’s a good time to be a CIO. The credit crunch and the agony it brought have helped transform IT from cost centre to centre of innovation, change and opportunity in many organisations. If you think you’ve heard it all before then check the recent career progress of Philip Clarke who made the move from CIO to CEO at retail giant, Tesco.

More good news is that the majority of CIOs are arriving from a heavy-duty tech background; the trend, fashionable in previous decades, of appointing a general manager to this role is looking distinctly dated. This job is T-shaped, with broad knowledge encompassing business, finance and technology across the top bar, supported by deep wells of technical competence.

The real difference between an average and stellar performance in this role however, says Adam Thilthorpe, director of professionalism at the BCS, is the ability to ‘blend’. In other words, a successful CIO matches technical ability with business aptitude.

It’s having the insight and ability to make IT the instrument of business change that elevates the modern CIO. The opportunities are there for the picking - in the music market the phenomenon of music downloads and iTunes that changed the shape of the industry, for example.

As Thilthorpe puts it: “If you’re behind the curve in technology, it’s a threat. If you’re ahead, it’s an opportunity”. All of which means that CIOs who can blend are in demand and fast becoming the rock stars of boardroom remuneration.

What type of person should you be?

The CIO is the member of the senior management team who forms the bridge between technology and the business. This calls for excellent interpersonal skills, business acumen and the ability to talk the language of the boardroom – often financial.

Having the necessary credibility stems from being a good communicator who’s robust enough to get a message across without using brute force. The technology piece is a given, not least because a CIO will typically manage more than a dozen suppliers, all of whom will try and muddy the waters about service though techno babble at some point.

A word on the difference between the CIO, the modern incarnation of the top tech job, and the IT director. A rule of thumb is that IT directors spend more time with their technical team than customers and CIOs tend to spend more time with the business.

Panellist’s view: You need to gain credibility quickly so that you are taken seriously and not just as another propeller head.

What are the first and second jobs; what’s the career path?

The first and second job can be any typical first-rung job such as programmer or business analyst but by the third, you need to think customer. A business-facing role with direct contact with business contacts will pay dividends in cultivating interpersonal and business skills.

A role that provides experience of dealing with users and their problems is essential. So if you are from an IT background, any role that has lots of user interaction will be good. If you are not from an IT background then an operational background would be good. Anyone with an eye to the top job should make fairly rapid progress to managing small teams and have a good handle on infrastructure, service delivery and project management.

The role that is a launch pad for a bid for the CIO is crucial. Head of business solutions and head of software development are particularly good roles, because of their two prongs: head of a software factory but also interface to business demand for software solutions.

Panellist’s view: My first break that put me on course to CIO, was a publishing role where I was responsible for the online delivery of services and products to clients.

What professional qualifications should you acquire, and organisations should you join?

You should have a core IT qualification of some sort and ideally be educated to post graduate level or have an MBA. Further learning helps intellectual development and helps ‘round’ you as a person - a definite bonus in such a challenging role.

The Chartered IT Professional status, or equivalent, shows a real commitment to the profession and also helps develop - and demonstrate to colleagues – a breadth of knowledge and capability. It may be worth investigating other courses such as CIMA’s finance for non-financial professionals, to build credibility with the board, too.

Joining professional bodies, such as the BCS’ Elite, also provides access to membership networks. In a role so dependent on having a broad knowledge, such a network is invaluable. As well as being aid for doing the day-to-day job, it can also be a route to the next promotion.

Panellist’s view: Networking enables you to learn lessons without going through the heartache.

What additional skills are useful?

You need to continually develop in this role if you’re not going to stagnate and networking is an important tool. Get yourself a mentor who has performed in this role, not necessarily in the same industry, who can help you identify and remedy potential weaknesses.

Exposure to managing third-party suppliers is a major area of competence given the continued trend to outsource in the deficit-cutting era. Similarly, working out the impact of risk is becoming a must-have area of intelligence.

Another good way of accessing the broader skills that will improve your judgement and performance is to take on a non–executive role in a professional organisation. Otherwise, a thick skin and the ability to keep calm in a crisis will smooth the way.

Panellist’s view: I see CIOs who are out twice a week meeting suppliers and investigating new technical opportunities.

What’s the job market like?

For the foreseeable future organisations will always need a CIO or alternatively-titled head of IT. If you can demonstrate that you can harness IT to improve the efficiency of the organisation you will be a wanted person.

The average salary for CIO jobs in 2010 is £83,750 according to MySalary and rates rose by an average of 5% from the previous year. However, this average will be far exceeded in some sectors and locations: the average London salary was £170,000. The financial services sector pays more, and most generous of all is central government: Joe Harley, CIO at the Department for Work and Pensions, earned up to £270,000 in 2008/9. The comprehensive spending review will put paid to this honour, however.

Panellist’s view: This sort of person is in short supply - so step up to the plate and the future is looking good.

What is career progression?

There are CIO roles – and even bigger CIO roles. The ongoing economic shakeout and spate of mergers and acquisitions is creating some of these ueber-CIO jobs, which are very much about influencing business through technology.

There’s a commonly-held belief that the average lifespan of a CIO is three years – as long as it takes to implement a strategy and win over stakeholders. If you’ve got a good management team around you, however, there’s probably no need to be in any rush to move on as it’s possible to grow your clout an organisation as its business reach expands.

For those very involved in delivery, there’s the possibility of the COO role – in some sectors, such as finance, these roles are converging – and the CEO role has been conquered by some. And, because IT underpins everything, future graduates may expect IT to be the fastest route to the boardroom.

Panellist’s view: My current role came into being when my company was acquired. Other members of the team were also promoted into big roles.

Our CIO panel:

Ben Booth, CIO of Ipsos, former IT director of Mori
Alan Mumby, partner and head of CIO/CTO Practice, Odgers Berndtson
Adam Thilthorpe, director of professionalism at the BCS
David Tidey, Head of IT and Business Communications, Wandsworth Council

Elite, the BCS group for CIOs and IT leaders

Socitm, membership association for ICT professionals in the public and third sectors