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What Is a CIO?

Sean Riley
Sean Riley

A chief information officer is the executive in charge of information technology, including network monitoring and defense.

As technology has evolved throughout the years, so have the roles and responsibilities of chief information officers. A CIO is responsible for managing an organization's IT staff, as well as its IT-related assets like software and hardware, and for strategic planning as it relates to computer systems and the organization's network. 

"[The] CIO role is essential for the business, because we cannot build a product without using technology," said Michal Abram, senior director of engineering at BOLD (formerly Zety). "[A] CIO must be able to link the world of technology with product development, [and] make crucial business decisions based on unique knowledge and experience."

Here's what you need to know about a CIO's responsibilities, their importance and how to be an effective CIO.

CTO vs. CIO

It's easy to confuse CIOs and chief technology officers (CTOs), but they don't have the same responsibilities, and the positions require different skill sets. A CIO is usually in charge of the organization's internal IT operations and is the top technology infrastructure manager. 

"The CIO is a business-technology leader," said Jeff Bittner, founder and president of Exit Technologies. "The CIO does not have to fully understand how the technology works but understand what it can do and how it can impact the business."

A CTO ensures a company's technology strategy aligns with its objectives and requirements. This executive is the company's top technology architect and runs the engineering group.

"The CTO is immersed in technology and has an engineering-level understanding of how the technology works and where it is headed," said Bittner.

The CTO typically reports to the CIO, while the CIO reports to the CEO or another C-suite executive. [Read related article: How to Become a CIO or CTO]

CIO vs. IT director

Another potential point of confusion is the IT director versus the CIO, particularly for smaller companies. The IT director typically reports to the CIO and handles the day-to-day tasks associated with IT assets, computer systems, and network management. Keeping the company's systems up and running is the primary concern of the IT director and their department.

While the IT director may identify areas for improvement in the technology the company uses, they will not ultimately make strategic planning decisions regarding the overarching technological direction of the company. They interact with third-party vendors or digital service providers and may make recommendations regarding these to the CIO. While the CIO determines the overall strategy, the management of day-to-day relationships with vendors remains the IT director's responsibility.

While the IT director and CIO have different focuses, both require the ability to collaborate effectively with a team, negotiate both internally and externally, and deliver presentations to the larger organization.

The importance of CIOs

As technology and business continue to intertwine, the CIO will be increasingly important. Sanjay Deo, founder and president of 24By7Security, said a CIO translates business information requirements to support the decision-making process with technology requirements.

"Technology is an enabler of most strategic initiatives; therefore, it's important to have a leader in charge of them," added Rod DeVos, CEO of Resolute Technology Solutions. "It's a critical role both in operating a business and taking the business to the next level."  

Abram said CIOs require a strong blend of hard skills through higher education, like a background in data science establishing an understanding of the technology and an MBA for the business know-how to apply the tech to business operations. This balanced background should allow the CIO to find paths to innovation that might elude those with a specialization in just one side or the other.

How to be an effective CIO

Bittner believes CIOs should be great communicators and visionaries, with a strategic mindset and strong relationship-building skills.

"Because a CIO interacts with C-level executives and other management personnel, the CIO must be able to translate in-depth technical solutions in consumable brevities the organizational member can understand," he said.

DeVos said CIOs manage people, processes, outsourcing arrangements, financials, governance, risk and overall strategy. "[A great CIO is] a person who is equal parts business savvy and tech savvy – someone who can structure and motivate a team. They need to be able to set priorities and make trade-offs."

How much does a CIO make?

As with any job, compensation varies considerably depending on your location, the company and your experience. However, the U.S. national average for CIOs is $170,679 annually, according to Glassdoor. PayScale offers a slightly more conservative salary estimate of $158,050. PayScale also helpfully offers an overall range of $94,000 to $249,000, which gives a more complete picture of the salary this role can command. There are significant outliers in certain industries and locations who push into seven figures, but this range is roughly what you can expect to earn as a CIO in the U.S.

The future for CIOs

Most project that the CIO role will grow even more separate from the on-the-ground tech. The goal for a CIO should be advancing the business through innovation and finding the transformative tech that can help the company more easily reach its potential.

As far as a specific technology that is likely to have the greatest impact for CIOs, artificial intelligence is significantly affecting organizations across virtually every industry. AI allows organizations to free up their human workforce for the more important duties by automating simple or repetitive tasks. This is precisely what a CIO looks to do, and AI, if implemented properly, is the kind of innovation that can deliver that goal.

"A CIO who is worth his or her value is a leader who can turn business opportunities or challenges into solutions enabled by technology," said DeVos. "That's where the true value of the CIO comes from."

CIOs typically have a bachelor's degree in computer science or a related field, an MBA, and experience in project management, IT governance and risk management. If you're interested in becoming a CIO, check out this Business News Daily guide on the career path.

Saige Driver contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Sean Riley
Sean Riley,
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