Chief Information Officer Job Description

chief information officer job descriptionTo say that technology has become a part of our everyday lives is to state the obvious; from cell phones to cars, there is little that is not influenced by, or utilizes technology in some way.

This influence is all the more apparent in the business realm where technology now forms the core of every enterprise’s fundamental structure. It manages and mediates everything from inter and intra-organization communication to employee management and finance. In this context, the role of the Chief Information Officer (CIO) – the person responsible for a company’s technological direction – has become all the more important.

This article will give you a detailed overview of a Chief Information Officer’s roles and responsibilities. For an even more thorough account of this job (and how to get one), check out this course on management information systems and its connection to business.

What is a Chief Information Officer (CIO)?

As stated above, the Chief Information Officer is the person responsible for controlling the technological resources of a company. This covers a wide swathe of responsibilities, considering how technology is so inextricable linked to business processes in the modern enterprise. The CIO may find himself managing everything from an organization’s communication systems to taking decisions on the company’s broader IT direction.

A Brief History of the CIO

Compared to the CEO or CFO, the CIO is a relatively recent addition to the executive hierarchy. The origins of this role date back to the mid-1950s when computing entered the workplace. Computers back then were simple tools meant to process data and automate certain functions in finance and accounting. The person responsible for managing these processes was generally called “Director of Data Processing”. As computers became more sophisticated, this person’s responsibilities expanded as well. By the 1970s, the person responsible for an enterprise’s computing resources was generally called “Director of Management Information Systems (MIS)”.

By the 1980s, computers had become important enough in business processes for the Director of Management Information Systems to be part of the CEO’s strategic decision-making processes, along with other C-level executives (CFO, COO, etc.). With this increased importance came another change in title – to the Chief Information Officer.

The first CIO in America was Al Zipf of Bank of America. Zipf was widely credited with the creating the first large scale general purpose computing system for the banking industry. Called ‘ERMA’ – Electronic Recording Method of Accounting – this system had a dramatic effect on banking efficiency. It also led to even greater adoption of technology in a wide range of industries, underscoring the importance of the CIO.

In the ensuing years, the CIO came to be recognized as an indispensable part of any CEO’s executive team. It is rare to find a successful business that does not have a CIO managing technology behind the scenes.

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Differences Between CIO and CTO

On paper, the CIO and CTO (Chief Technology Officer) appear largely similar – both are C-level executives involved in technological processes. Both report to either the CEO or the CFO/COO. Both have assumed ever-greater responsibilities in the last decade.

In practice, however, the CIO and CTO have very different functions within a company. The chief responsibility of a CTO is to develop new technologies. You can think of her as the architect of the company’s technology vision. In this role, the CTO deals with hard engineering challenges and directs the development of new technology to further the business’ revenues.

The job of the CIO, on the other hand, is to implement existing technologies to further the business’ strategic goals. The CIO will rarely be involved in developing new technologies. Instead, she will work with a team of IT professionals and engineers to create systems and processes that make optimum use of current technological resources to meet business needs.

Another difference between CIO and CTO is their educational background. CIOs tend to be technically competent people with some grounding in business fundamentals. A typical CIO will have an engineering education plus some MBA-level business education.

CTOs, on the other hand, tend to be engineers and scientists. The typical CTO will likely have extensive formal education in engineering or related fields. It is not uncommon to find CTOs with PhDs as well.

This distinction is not quite as watertight as it used to be a decade earlier. More and more CIOs handle the responsibilities of CTOs, and vice-versa. Companies might also have a SVP level position for the CIO if they already have a CTO.

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Roles and Responsibilities of a CIO

By now, you should have a fair idea of the roles and responsibilities of a Chief Information Officer. The actual responsibilities of the CIO will vary from company to company and industry to industry, but for the most part, she can be expected to:

  • Analyze a company’s current technology infrastructure and align it with the business’ strategic plans.
  • Develop a communication system for the company, including network infrastructure, wide area connectivity, etc.
  • Work closely with project managers to ensure optimum allocation and utilization of technology resources.
  • Supervise and recruit technology staff.
  • Ensure that the company’s IT operations adhere to local laws.
  • Ensure the security of the business’ IT assets. This is a particularly problematic situation for businesses in light of the recent spate of hacker attacks.
  • Work closely with other C-level executives to create strategic plans for the business’ future growth.
  • Establish the IT department’s operative goals and objectives.
  • Work with the CTO (if any) to develop and implement new technologies.

In essence, as the CIO, you will be responsible for every facet of the company’s IT infrastructure and other technology resources. You will work very closely with other C-level executives and will be directly involved in outlining and achieving the company’s strategic goals.

The CIO Career Path

Any effective CIO must have the following three characteristics:

  • A solid understanding of technology
  • Deep knowledge of business principles
  • Extensive experience working in technology and/or business roles within a company.

The technological demands of the job mean that the CIO will usually have a background in technology. Most CIOs will have a degree in science or engineering; some will even have Master’s and PhDs.

Because the CIO deals with the implementation side of technology, she must also have a thorough understanding of business principles. It is not uncommon for most CIOs today to have an MBA or equivalent degree as well. With CTOs often handling the hardcore tech issues of a business, more and more CIOs are coming from a tech + business background, compared to a hard-core tech background earlier.

Any aspiring CIO, thus, must seek to major in an engineering or related science field in college, followed either by a MBA, Master’s, or equivalent work experience in a competitive firm. For example, former Coca-Cola CIO Jean Michel Ares holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering, as well as a MBA.

Of course, CIOs can come from different backgrounds as well. Vivek Kundra, the first CIO of the United States, holds an undergraduate degree in psychology and a Master’s degree from the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership.

The position of the CIO is very flexible and accommodating. Companies – especially younger tech startups – are not shy of hiring people without formal qualifications in technology and/or business as long as they have plenty of hands-on experience. In that spirit, why not check out this certificate program in management information systems to kickstart your CIO journey?