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IT Management

10 Tips for Up-and-Coming CIOs

Higher ed IT leaders share their advice for aspiring chief information officers, from finding a mentor to developing communication skills and more.

What does it mean to be a higher education chief information officer? For those aspiring to the position, it can be a daunting combination of technical know-how and business savvy, diplomacy and communication, management skills and more.

We asked IT leaders at colleges and universities across the country what advice they would give someone looking to become a CIO — what they have learned from serving in the role, what newbies should watch out for, what is most important to know. Here's what they said.

Theresa Rowe
Chief Information Officer, Oakland University (MI)

"Aspiring CIOs should invest time learning the entire realm of being a CIO and where their personal preferences fit. Pay attention to reporting lines. Is there an ideal reporting line for your particular career goals? What organizations and teams do you believe should report to the CIO? Are there organizational structures, either reporting up or in the IT organization, that you think are deal-breakers for your career? Or will you accept anything and work for changes that you believe are important? How willing are you to move to find the right position?

"Develop your public speaking and communication skills. During the course of a week, as a CIO, I may be presenting to the board, giving a presentation for a local group or to a student organization, leading a cross-functional team around a table, or writing a news release. Early in my career, I underestimated how much time I would spend on these activities.

"I spend a lot more time on the physical aspects of a campus than I thought I would early in my career. Over time, IT has been outsourced, moved back on premise and outsourced again. That is a regular cycle. Understanding how to manage the physical campus operation while IT moves in a swirl is important.

"Despite recent surveys that suggest a CIO does not need to be technical, a CIO has to understand enough technology to have the respect of the technical people who report to the CIO, and be technical enough to have credibility around a table of peer leaders. No one suggests that a chief financial officer doesn't need to know anything about finance and accounting; CIOs need to similarly lead technology. Peer leaders also expect the CIO to be a voice of IT security, unless there is a CISO.

"Be a change leader. One thing is certain: A CIO career changes a lot over time."

Wayne Brown
Vice President for Information Technology Emeritus at Excelsior College (NY)
Founder, Center for Higher Education CIO Studies (CHECS)

"Find a successful CIO who can mentor you."

Mark Askren
Vice President for Information Technology, University of Nebraska

"Own your career plan. Think through how you will reach and even extend your potential. No one cares as much about your success as you do. Mentors can be exceptionally valuable but in the end it is up to you."

Brian Fodrey
Assistant Dean for Facilities & Information Technology and Chief Information Officer, School of Government, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"How I view IT within my organization: 1) Starting point: Every project is a technology project. 2) Our reality: Challenging fiscal climates = new normal. 3) Our charge: To provide leadership in organizational change and innovation; IT does more than provide technology, it powers the mission of the organization.

"My approach to the employees I work with: Empower employees to find purpose in their work and a path forward to be successful. Create safe spaces for employees to make and learn from mistakes.

"How I approach my work: Technology moves faster than real time, and so does its marketplace — so be ready! By investing in strategic forecasting, maintaining a balanced approach and being open to transforming IT, you will be able to better predict and deliver what customers want at the precise moment they want it (too early or too late both pose risks). Prime every request and project by asking, what is the organization trying to accomplish?"

Michael Mathews
Associate Vice President of Technology and Innovation, Oral Roberts University (OK)

"There has never been a greater time to have a joyful and rewarding career as a CIO, while at the same time there has never been a worse time to have a dreadful career as a CIO. Looking back over my career, I have seen quite a few CIOs dread their job, while many enjoy their career. The difference between the two is a simple, yet powerful perspective: your personal viewpoint of what and whom you serve. CIOs who served the latest fads in technology usually end up dreading their jobs. However, the CIOs who realize that they serve at the pleasure of the students' needs — and president's vision — enjoy their career.

"Through the last five years I have switched my own personal CIO job description to state, 'My CIO role is to help campus stakeholders survive and thrive in the digital society in which we find ourselves.' I have put technology on the back burner, and committed to helping people find easier, more efficient and more empowering ways to leverage the shift in a digital world. This shift has allowed me to be far more impactful and more successful on campus and within higher education. This focus has also produced less spend on technology and more awards for the universities I am privileged to serve."

Thomas Hoover
Chief Information Officer and Dean of the Library, University of Louisiana Monroe

"Don't be afraid to reach out to other CIOs and ask for advice and mentoring. One of the best things about working in higher education is the camaraderie among CIOs and institutions. You cannot know everything and it is important to surround yourself with a good knowledge team."

Joseph Moreau
Vice Chancellor of Technology, Foothill-De Anza Community College District (CA)

"Be sure to learn how to effectively explain highly technical circumstances, solutions or challenges in non-technical terms. Nothing will be more off-putting to non-IT colleagues, regardless of their role, than to be spoken to by their institution's top IT leader in voluminous technical jargon that most folks do not understand. Non-IT colleagues will interpret 'techno-speak' as being condescending, intimidating or an indication their IT chief does not understand or value their role. A CIO who can break down critically important technical details into terms anyone in the institution can understand will be appreciated and respected. A CIO who does not possess this skill will likely find their career to be tumultuous and possibly short-lived."

Sharon Blanton
Vice President and Chief Information Officer, The College of New Jersey

"Research indicates that mentorship is very helpful in preparing for the CIO role. It always surprises me when I meet someone who says he/she is interested in becoming CIO but hasn't told anyone. So my first piece of advice is to own the aspiration and share it with those who can help you along the way. Secondly, I recommend learning as much as possible about the career to make sure it really is a good fit. I always say 'chase the work, not the title.' Some people advance and then find the position isn't what they thought it would be. So, make sure you love the work you do and don't worry so much about titles. Take advantage of the many training opportunities available from organizations like Educause and CHECS and get a variety of CIOs in your network. I have found that most CIOs genuinely want to assist with career planning."

Andy Jett
Vice President for Strategic Planning & Academic Resources and Chief Information Officer, Baker University (KS)

"Learn that communication and transparency is crucial to build confidence in IT."

Jerry Waldron
Strategic Advisor, Higher Education IT and Former CIO, Arcadia University (PA)

"Become 'multilingual' by learning enough about all of the areas in IT."

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