IT Leadership

What Will Keep the CIO Pipeline Flowing?

Preparing the next generation of IT executives may involve mentoring, on-the-job training, cross-rotation programs and the creation of deputy CIO positions.

Filling the CIO Pipeline

What skills and training will the next generation of CIOs require as technology becomes an essential part of teaching and learning? Where will those CIOs come from? Are they already working in university IT departments? Those are some of the questions that Wayne Brown, vice president and CIO at Excelsior College (NY), has sought to answer as founder of the Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officer Studies (CHECS).

Since 2009, the nonprofit CHECS has been surveying CIOs and the technology leaders who work under them, as well as institutional leaders who hire CIOs, to provide insight into the career path of individuals in or aspiring to technology leadership positions in higher education.

Speaking at Ithaca College's recent 25th annual Educational Technology Day, and in a follow-up interview with Campus Technology, Brown discussed some of the issues raised by CHECS' 2014 survey results, including the pipeline for new CIOs, especially among women and minorities. "The good news is that the percentage of female technology leaders has risen from 33 percent in 2009 to 39 percent in 2014," he said. The bad news is that 55 percent of female CIOs say they are going to retire in the next 10 years, and only 31 percent of female tech leaders say they are interested in becoming CIOs. Among male tech leaders, more than 60 percent of survey respondents said they wanted to be CIOs. 

Even worse, in 2014, only 9 percent of CIOs were non-white, and the number of non-white tech leaders responding fell from 8 percent in 2012 to 2 percent in 2014. "It is something we have to focus on to make this position more representative of the population," Brown noted.

Brown also said the low numbers of tech leaders who say they want to be CIOs may stem from a misunderstanding about what the position entails. "To some tech leaders, the CIO position looks like all politics and meetings. We have to do a better job of educating people that it is a cool job that has a lot of job satisfaction attached to it."

For the tech leaders who do express interest in becoming CIOs, Brown wonders if they are getting the mentoring and education to prepare to succeed. Do they understand the job well enough to prepare for it? "They have to have mentoring and on-the-job training," he said. "There is no school you can attend to learn how to be a CIO."  (Nevertheless, 81 percent of CIOs surveyed have master's or doctorate degrees.)

To be considered for CIO positions, tech leaders must have a breadth of experience, Brown said: "You have to be more than just a help desk director or application support director. As tech leaders they get rewarded for being in a stovepipe and being good at the one thing they are responsible for." But he believes employees should consider lateral moves and shadowing other tech leaders to broaden their experience.

An increasing number of surveyed tech leaders (54 percent in 2014) say their CIOs are mentoring them, and 65 percent of CIOs say they are mentoring someone. Brown said the creation of deputy CIO positions is one way he has seen universities give tech leaders exposure to wider responsibilities and opportunities.

Other CIOs share Brown's concern about the pipeline of future leaders and the challenges around transforming the role of IT on campus. Jill Albin-Hill, vice president and CIO at Dominican University (IL), said that broadening people's understanding of what the CIO does will help get computer science majors and others to consider it as a career path. "We have to do a better job of describing what the job entails. It is exciting work. Then we need to do better at mentoring those in tech leader positions who have broader skills and could really see themselves in that role," said Albin-Hill, who sits on the advisory boards of both CHECS and Campus Technology.

Although she isn't formally mentoring any of her staff now, Albin-Hill said she sends one employee to cabinet meetings to expose him to other relationships that would broaden his understanding of higher education beyond the IT department, which is essential to taking the next step toward becoming a CIO. "You can be a good director of IT with just a good understanding of how IT runs," she said, "but to be CIO you have to think about all the other facets of the institution."

Mark Askren, CIO of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, isn't as concerned about the overall pipeline. "I have been involved in higher education IT leadership for 30 years, and that entire time there has always been concern about the CIO pipeline, but I think the leaders a rung or two down the ladder are ready to roll and looking for us to retire and get out of the way," he said. "They will be outstanding."

Askren is quite concerned, however, about the diversity issue. "Those of us who are very committed to the value of diversity find it troubling that that we are noticing fewer women expressing interest in these positions and certainly we have always been under-represented as far as minorities in these leadership positions," he said. "The talent is definitely there. But what we haven't figured out is why there is less interest. I think there is some misunderstanding that the CIO is a bureaucratic job. We have a responsibility to do a much better job at providing leadership training opportunities and mentoring — some way to expose people to what these positions are really like."

Askren said he sometimes encourages employees to make a lateral move to improve their skill set. "Within an IT organization, if you come up as a software developer, take a lateral into infrastructure or security," he suggested. "If you do that, you are investing in yourself and learning new skills. You will be so much better prepared for the CIO or deputy CIO position if you broaden your skills base. That is the No. 1 thing people can do." It doesn't cost anything other than some risk involved, he said, adding that it helps if you have some leaders in the organization that see the purpose of it. "At Nebraska we want to put some kind of formal cross-rotation program in place. We are not there yet, but we are working on it."

Brown also described a disagreement between CIOs and the management teams who hire CIOs about what skills and education are important. When you ask CIOs the top skills required for the position and what an advanced degree should focus on, technology does not show up in the top five things mentioned, he said, yet among institutional team members, it is considered the No. 1 skill. "We need to get this information to vice presidents and presidents who hire CIOs: It is not a tech job," he said.

University executives want the CIO to be conversant in technology. "I need to be skilled enough to shape the direction we are going and be able to have conversations about VoIP and know what I am talking about," Albin-Hill said. "At the same time, I am not going to stay up on how to configure a Cisco network. But I need to know the fundamentals, and that gets more important the smaller the institution, where there is more reliance on external vendors and a smaller staff that needs to have more guidance. The larger the organization, the fewer tech skills the CIO needs to have."

Askren said having a technology background helps but that communication skills are the most important to have. "Beyond just speaking skills, you need emotional intelligence, the ability to listen, be authentic and earn trust," he said. "We are change agents. You have to embrace change and reduce the fear level."

When asked about the recent development of schools hiring chief digital officers to focus on how technology impacts teaching and learning, Brown said that when that happens it is because the CIO isn't doing his or her job and has decided to focus on the plumbing. "Some CIOs just don't see it as their job to be the evangelist looking on the horizon for what their institution should be trying," he said. "But all that plumbing stuff can be outsourced. I don't have to understand higher education to provide a network, PCs or a help desk. Anybody can do that." He sees the naming of a chief digital officer as a way to sideline the CIO without having to have the conversation about whether the CIO is doing a good job or not. Yet Brown predicted the chief digital officer movement will go nowhere. "In five years we are going to be talking about some other CXO position," he said. "We used to talk about the chief technology officer as the next big thing, and it has gone nowhere. The percentage of universities with a CTO today is in the single digits."

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