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How to Become a CIO or CTO

Ed Tittel and Earl Follis

Follow these steps to move up in your organization.

Many IT professionals listen to speeches delivered by CIOs and CTOs and think, "I'd make a great CIO or CTO," or "I am clearly more knowledgeable and capable than that person." This is a fun daydream, but it also raises this interesting question: What does it take to become an effective CIO or CTO?

Do you have the right C-level stuff? If not, do you know how to hone your skills and develop your expertise so that you can, one day, be a chief information officer (CIO) or chief technology officer (CTO)?

Here are some thoughts and ideas to ponder as you prepare to walk that walk and talk that talk.

What is a CIO and CTO?

CIOs are typically responsible for leading an organization's IT staff and related assets, projects, and personnel. That position may report directly to the CEO or another C-level executive, such as the chief operating officer or the chief financial officer.

CTOs typically own the overarching technology strategy for a company and how that strategy meshes with and supports that company's business requirements and objectives. A CTO may also report directly to the CEO or another C-level executive.

Of course, there are many different types of CIOs and CTOs. Though there is no single definition of what constitutes a great CIO or CTO, we can identify some common traits and skills that are shared by the best of these many breeds of humankind.

Key takeawayKey takeaway: The main difference between a CIO and CTO is a CIO typically leads an organization's IT staff, projects, and assets whereas a CTO owns the overall technology strategy for a company. 

Leadership and team-building

There are managers, and there are leaders. Managers tell people what to do and how to do it, while leaders seduce, cajole and, well, lead an IT organization to achieve the goals defined by executive management. It's likely that you've worked with IT managers and IT leaders, and there are advantages to each type of management style and capability.

Managers are usually tightly connected to a traditional IT hierarchy and organizational processes. Many managers work their way up through the ranks and have earned their managerial roles through hard work, relevant experience, and technical competency.

IT leaders may also come up through the ranks, or they may earn a leadership role through force of personality, communication skills, political acumen, or industry knowledge. It's not unusual for CIOs and CTOs to be recruited from outside a company, usually because they possess outstanding management and leadership skills.

The Holy Grail for IT executives is someone who is both a good manager and a motivating leader. That is, someone who can comprehend an IT project plan and budget while also effectively communicating big-picture goals and priorities for an IT organization. This requires a heady mix of both hard and soft skills.

Technical and industry knowledge

The typical job requirements for a CIO or a CTO include technical, financial and organizational experience. Efforts over the last 10 years to more closely link IT to the business side of a company adds in-depth business skills and knowledge to the CIO and CTO job requirements mix.

Gone are the days when a CIO or CTO could ignore the business and deliver IT on IT's schedule. CIOs and CTOs who don't fully support an organization's business goals could find themselves looking for work elsewhere, such is the requirement for integrating business needs and requirements into IT planning and operations. Following high-tech industry websites and influential CIO/CTO blogs is a great first step to understanding, and eventually attaining, this exalted role. Learn the CIO/CTO lingo and see for yourself what working CIOs and CTOs are talking about and why they care about such things.

For the technical foundation, a CIO or CTO needs to be successful. Avail yourself of advanced technical training and IT project management training at every opportunity. If your company offers tuition reimbursement or a technical training budget, you should advance your technical skills and knowledge through those vehicles.

And don't forget to learn all you can about how the business side operates within your company or industry sector. If your technical chops and your business chops are both well-developed, you put yourself in the best possible position to eventually become a CIO or CTO.

CIO/CTO education and certification

Many companies prefer a CIO or CTO with an advanced degree, usually an MBA, considering the complexity of IT budgets, governance and processes. That said, we've met outstanding CIOs and CTOs with no more formal education than a high school diploma or a bachelor's degree. We've also met CIOs and CTOs with doctorates in unrelated fields. We'd rather work for a non-degreed CIO or CTO who makes well-informed decisions and can lead the IT staff into battle than for a CIO with a Ph.D. who lacks knowledge about the culture and internal workings of IT and the business it supports.

Beyond college or university degrees a CIO or CTO may or may not have, several key areas in IT suggest themselves as worthy of pursuit for aspiring C-level executives who wish to remain active and functional in that field. Governance and IT/enterprise architecture are incredibly relevant, as are project management, budgeting, and leadership skills.

Ambition and drive

Being a CIO or CTO is a difficult job that requires dedication and persistence. Most CIOs we know are basically on call 24/7/365 should any IT-related issues come up, especially if those issues impact the ability of the company to perform day-to-day business operations. That level of personal sacrifice means it's not the right job for everyone.

It usually takes years of hard work to make your way into the executive ranks. The timeline is often shorter at smaller companies, so working as a CIO or CTO in a smaller IT shop can be a great way to get your foot in the C-level door and gain valuable experience that can be a steppingstone to a similar role at progressively larger companies.

For an interesting look at how CTOs of several large corporations reached their lofty positions, visit The Path to Tech CTO page. This interactive content, by Agil8, lets you hover over the steps for each CTO to see his or her career moves, the length of time in each job, and how long it took each of them to make the grade.

Communication skills

We've saved the most important CIO and CTO skill for last: the ability to inspire and lead your IT troops through excellent communication skills. If you do not have experience talking in front of large groups, spend time at a Toastmasters club gaining the confidence to communicate with individuals, teams and organizations.

All of the CIO/CTO skills we mention in this article are important, but if you can't communicate clearly and concisely, with passion, you will struggle to be the people leader most companies look for when filling a CIO or CTO position.

CIOs and CTOs must also be able to communicate clearly and concisely through the written word. If your writing skills need honing, consider taking a business writing class to learn the specialized way that IT communicates.

TipTip: Learning terms and acronyms specific to your company or industry is also an effective way to gain a common vocabulary that will serve you well in IT.

Is this for you?

Pursuing a CIO or CTO position is not a decision to be made lightly. It takes years of hard work and maybe even a little good luck for you to achieve your C-level goal.

If your company has an IT mentoring program, that is one excellent way to gain relevant knowledge and skills while also identifying yourself to executive management as someone who has the will and stamina to climb the IT leadership ladder.

Make the decision with your eyes wide open about the challenges ahead, then never take no for an answer. Remain focused and committed to your goal, and good things will surely come your way – if not sooner, then perhaps later!

Ed and Earl met in the late 1980s when Ed hired Earl as a trainer at an Austin-area networking company that's now part of HP. The two of them have written numerous books together on NetWare, Windows Server and other topics. Earl is also a regular writer for the computer trade press with many e-books, white papers and articles to his credit.

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