How to Become a Public-Sector CIO

As the government CIO's role continues to change, what's the best career strategy for a professional who aspires to that position?

by / August 6, 2008

The role of the public-sector CIO is more crucial than ever, but there's no tried-and-true way to prepare for it.

"You don't go to school and say, 'I want to grow up and be a CIO or a CTO," said Alan Shark, the executive director of the Public Technology Institute (PTI) in Washington, D.C.

So how do professionals get on the road that leads to the public CIO's chair?

There might not be a typical career path for CIOs, but there's a prevalent one, said Liza Lowery Massey, CEO of The CIO Collaborative, a Las Vegas-based consultancy. "Most CIOs today rise through the ranks of IT," she said. Massey, a former Los Angeles CIO, started as a software specialist and went on to gain broad IT experience.

In the past, state CIOs tended to rise through the ranks of government, said Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO). But these days, a growing number of them cross over from the private sector, and in this manner arrive with a different set of credentials. "They have much more of a strong business background, and they may not have been involved in pure computer science," Robinson said. "Many of them have MBAs [master's of business administration]."

In fact, some CIOs come to the job with no formal education in IT at all. Take the example of Patrick Schambach, who served as deputy CIO at the Secret Service and CIO at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Transportation Security Administration. He holds business degrees and started his career with the Secret Service as an accountant.

"I knew enough about technology to be dangerous, but I don't consider myself a technologist," said Schambach, now Nortel Government Solution's senior vice president and general manager of e-Government and Infrastructure Services in Fairfax, Va.

According to Schambach, it was his ability to understand his organization's business imperatives that made him CIO material. His rise to the Secret Service's deputy CIO offers a prime example. "I could relate to the mission side of the organization, which are not technologists -- especially gun carriers in law enforcement," he said. "They wanted someone who knew the mission well and could bring technology to bear against that mission."

Schambach's accounting background also stood him in good stead. "Because of that initial experience I had in the financial area, I knew how the budget worked. I knew how to get funding lined up years in advance before the need came," he said.

A grounding in technology is important, but it's not enough, said Allan Grossman, senior partner with A. Davis Grant & Co., an Edison, N.J.-based executive search firm specializing in information systems and technology. "Today the CIO clearly needs more of a background in general business than he or she did 20 years ago."

Massey has an acid test for distinguishing between mere "techies" and real CIOs. "I always say, 'If you know the version number of the operating system running on your mainframe, you're probably not a CIO,'" she said. Except in very small organizations, a CIO rarely gets involved in that level of detail, she explained. The aspiring CIO needs to make the leap from being a technologist to being a strategist and must learn the language of business. "You have to be seen as a peer working for the good of the organization, not as the chief geek," she said.

CIO as Translator
Shark, who said he has interviewed about 300 government CIOs in the last couple of years, agreed that a CIO must speak two languages. "I'm seeing a big shift from issues that were purely technology to issues having much more to do with IT governance and leadership -- being a translator between the technologists who work in the trenches and the politicians or the [higher-level] people who just want to hear the facts," he said.

NASCIO regularly asks its members what characteristics have helped them succeed as CIOs. In the latest survey, a strong knowledge of technology stood low on the top 10 list -- maybe seventh, Robinson said. Which traits rose to the top? "Communications skills, negotiation skills, being able to collaborate and work across the agencies, to work with their executive team but also with the legislature," Robinson said.

Although public- and private-sector CIOs need many of the same skills, public CIOs also must gain sophistication in politics, Massey said. "Not office politics -- real politics," she added. "You've got to understand from the beginning that everything you do, even as an IT leader, is to help your elected officials get, stay and remain elected."

For CIOs who move from the corporate world to government, the transition can be difficult. In the private sector, when an executive makes a decision, the organization complies right away, Robinson said. Government moves more slowly. "So preparing to be frustrated is probably a good thing, and recognizing that in the environment you're going to work in, it can take a long time to get things done," Robinson said.

Advanced education may offer an advantage for cultivating the right combination of technology expertise and business savvy. "Clearly B-school [business school] wouldn't be a bad idea," said A. Davis Grant & Co.'s Grossman.

Rather than an MBA, the aspiring CIO with an eye on government service might pursue a Master of Public Administration (MPA). Massey chose that route. "I wanted to be well rounded and really understand the public sector," she said.

Shark suggests a similar path: "What would be terrific would be schools of administration where you could minor in technology."

The six universities that work with the U.S. General Services Administration's CIO University program have caught on to the idea that CIOs must master both IT and business. The program is designed to develop competencies that governments and corporations require of CIOs. At the outset, CIO University worked with graduate-level IT programs at the partner universities. "But then, as [the university programs] began to look at what we wanted students to learn, they started partnering with their business schools," said Monica Fitzgerald, director of CIO University.

Several other programs also offer professional development opportunities for IT professionals who hope to become public CIOs. Unfortunately there's no standard body of knowledge or core curriculum for these programs, Shark said. "Last year, while teaching a small portion of one of the very few local government CIO classes, I was surprised to see that the books being used were mostly from the private sector," he said. To help close that gap, Shark is editing a book called CIO Leadership for Cities and Counties: Emerging Trends and Practices, which PTI will publish by early 2009.

Student of Human Behavior
While advanced degrees and professional development programs offer many advantages, experts also note that there's just no substitute for experience. "Nothing, I think, could replace just being a student of human behavior," said Massey. In her own career, that meant observing colleagues' successes and failures, joining professional organizations, going to conferences and networking with peers.

Networking is important not only for gaining knowledge, but for experiencing the kind of interchange that's crucial to the CIO's job, said Fitzgerald. "That's really a critical piece of being a CIO: sitting at the table with all the higher-level people at your agency, representing what's happening with your people." Volunteering in a group such as the federal government's CIO Council provides opportunities to network with colleagues from other agencies, she added.

Networking with your internal customers also is crucial. "Technology professionals should spend as much time dealing with the end-user on a one-to-one basis as possible," Grossman said. For the manager, that means not sending a subordinate to find out what end-users require. "It would make a lot more sense for a person with ambition to go to the business person himself and say, 'Please tell me what it is you do for a living.'"

Curiosity is an asset for the aspiring CIO, said Schambach, reflecting on his own career. "I also thought it was really important to get out of your office, get out of your desk and go understand how the organization works." That means hanging out with the people who carry out the organization's mission. "That's where the knowledge comes from," said Schambach. "You've got to get out and be on the front lines."

Finally an aspiring CIO should seek out assignments that help build leadership muscle. "Step up and take on new responsibilities and new challenges," said Robinson. You might collect a few scars along the way, but in the long term, such experience is the route that leads to the top. "If you want to be a CIO or leader in any organization," he said, "you have to be a person who makes things happen."

Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer
Platforms & Programs