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Build Your Career Get Ahead

Building Your CIO Career Plan in 5 (Not-So-Easy) Steps

CIO career plan
Credit: Tashatuvango/Shutterstock

Lori, our correspondent this week, is interested in becoming a Chief Information Officer (CIO), preferably for a nonprofit or humanitarian organization. Although she has 10 years of IT experience, in everything from programming and scripting to network management and project management, she lacks the education, professional credentials, and leadership experience that most CIO positions call for.

The five-step career plan, outlined below, will get her on the right path to the executive suite; though the path is long (it will take close to a decade or longer to complete) and challenging (involving several degrees and multiple certifications), it will get Lori to where she wants to be.

Dear Lori:

It sounds like you've been out in the workforce for some time now, without having finished a bachelor's degree. Although it may not be practical for you to return to school full time, if you really and truly aspire to be a CIO someday, you will have to earn a bachelor's at some time, and probably also an MBA or some other kind of master's degree (perhaps in computer science [CS], management information systems [MIS], or something similar) to meet the qualifications that are typically required for CIO positions. Though it does sound like you have some great experience across a broad range of disciplines, and some decent studies under your belt, you are going to have to knuckle down to build yourself a credible portfolio of education and professional certifications.

Here are five steps I would suggest to build your CIO career path:

Find yourself a good online or local bachelor's degree program and finish a degree in computer science or something similar. Arizona State University and Western Governors University are two reasonably affordable institutions with all-online degree plans, but there are tons of programs you can choose from. Given that you live in California, you should probably investigate the options available from the UC system, especially at UC Irvine. You will want to get cracking on finishing your bachelor's ASAP. You may even be able to chase the CCNA while pursuing your degree; there are lots of programs that roll IT certifications up into their degree plans, so take advantage of that. I know you're probably going to have to take classes part-time while you work, but check out all your options nevertheless.

You mentioned you have some experience in project management, which is a great start; project management skills are a big plus for aspiring CIOs. I would suggest tackling some entry level project management certs like the Project+ from CompTIA to get your juices flowing, then sign up for and take a class on PMI's Project Management Professional (PMP) cert at your local community college or online to earn that cert. This will also help you get in the groove to start taking classes once again. 

As you get into your bachelor's degree curriculum you'll be able to zero in on some technical subjects where the job opportunities are strongest. You might want to stroll through our list of the Best IT Certifications (which lists over 20 certification categories) to get an idea of what kinds of specialties are out there, and what kinds of certs go along with them. After you earn your bachelor's, you'll want to start digging into one or two certification ladders to start building a portfolio to establish your technical credibility.

As an aspiring CIO, it's essential that you understand IT governance and risk management. This is an area where you'll need some insight, skills, and knowledge so you'll definitely want to dig into this curriculum. Because this is more advanced, mid- to late-career-level stuff, though, I'd suggest waiting two or three years after you finish your bachelor's and get some more real-world experience to draw on, before jumping into this arena.

About five years out from your bachelor's is a great time to go back to school for your master's degree. A Master's of Business Administration (MBA) would be best if you're pursuing the CIO path. This will be an important step in bridging the worlds of business and technology, which is what a CIO is supposed to be able to do in her sleep. You should also start seeking out some management and leadership opportunities at this point within your organization to get some hands-on experience in managing people.

Obviously, this is a long-term career plan that will take years to complete. You can and should make course corrections along the way, but this provides a good general blueprint for you to follow in your quest to reach the C-level executive suite.

Good luck with your education, certification, and CIO career planning. If you're willing to put in the time and effort to follow this plan down the road, I have every confidence that you can reach your goal and become a CIO someday.

Ed Tittel

Ed is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry, who has worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a classroom instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies that include Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written for numerous publications, including Tom's IT Pro, and is the author of more than 140 computing books on information security, web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.

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