Public CIO Career Path Hard but Rewarding

Experts stress diverse skills needed to become government IT executive.

by / June 5, 2008

Photo: NASCIO's Doug Robinson -- "If you want to be a CIO you have to be a person who makes things happen."

Although there is no tried-and-true way to become a government CIO, a number of career strategies have evolved for professionals who aspire to the position:

  • It's not all about IT: Gain a background in business.
    While a grounding in technology is important, it's not enough. With a background in general business, CIOs can better understand their organizations' business imperatives.
  • Learn to "speak two languages."
    According to Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute in Washington, D.C., a CIO must act as a "translator between the technologists who work in the trenches and the politicians ... who just want to hear the facts." Public-sector CIOs must shift their focus from purely technological issues to those of IT governance and leadership.
  • Gain sophistication in politics.
    Political savvy is particularly important for public-sector CIOs. As Liza Lowery Massey of The CIO Collaborative stated, "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."
  • Obtain an advanced education.
    Rather than an MBA, aspiring public-sector CIOs might pursue a Master of Public Administration in order to better understand the public sector. Shark suggests a similar path of attending a school of administration and minoring in technology. Professional development programs for IT professionals also provide an advantage for public CIO hopefuls.
  • Real-world experience: a must.
    While an advanced education is advantageous for CIOs, experts note that there's just no substitute for experience. This may include networking with internal customers and peers, going to conferences, and volunteering. Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, also recommends seeking out assignments that help build leadership muscle. "If you want to be a CIO ... you have to be a person who makes things happen," he said.

Other requirements for up-and-coming CIOs include: curiosity, communication skills, negotiation skills, being able to collaborate and work across agencies, and the ability to work with agency executives as well as legislators.

The bottom line: Public CIO hopefuls must cultivate their IT expertise, business and political acumen, and real-world management experience in order to keep up with the continuing evolution of the position.

Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer
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