Why No One Wants to Be a Chief Information Officer Any More

March 10, 2016, 7:07 PM UTC
empty office desk
Jan Stromme—Getty Images

Twenty years ago, in 1996, I was directing a “techno-MBA” program at the University of Texas at Austin. Many of the students in this program aspired to become Chief Information Officers (CIOs) in big companies. The role was only about 20 years old, but ambitious students saw it as the job to crave if you cared about technology in business.

Only a couple of years later, that aspiration began to wane, and it’s been waning ever since. The dot-com boom in the late 90s was the first strong blow to the desirability of the CIO job. My students no longer wanted to run IT for big companies, but rather to become founders or at least Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) of Petfood.com or LongUnderwear.com or some other e-commerce startup.

Of course, many of those companies met their quick demise, and becoming an e-commerce entrepreneur lost its glimmer for a while too. But the bloom was off the CIO rose, and it’s never come back. There are several aspects of the job that are unappealing, and other tech-related jobs that have more appeal. And there are only a few great CIO role models out there to emulate.

Let’s face it: the CIO job includes a lot of heavy lifting. You’re responsible for ensuring, for example, that hackers don’t breach your firewalls or muck around in your nuclear plant control system, which is a near-impossible task. Today it’s not so much whether your company will be hacked, but when and how. You’re responsible for keeping complex machinery and software running that will inevitably break. In the world of cloud computing, you are even responsible for things that you don’t actually have much control over.

CIOs also end up being the wet blankets of the technology field. They have to tell the Chief Marketing Officer that he can’t buy his own server and cool software for automated ad creation. For years they had to tell executives that they must use BlackBerrys rather than iPhones. It’s their job to ensure that company employees will have less powerful and desirable technologies than the employees’ teenage children. CIOs aren’t naturally killjoys; it’s just their role to ensure compliance with corporate technology standards and that is seldom fun.

CIOs also have to wrestle with legacy software and hardware. It’s not uncommon for 80% of IT budgets to be consumed by “keeping the lights on”—maintaining existing software applications, servers, and networks. This ensures that relatively little attention or resources can be devoted to exploring new uses of technology in the business.

Another problem with the job is that many of the most interesting aspects of it often get hived off into other roles. Perhaps a CIO would like to focus, for example, on how to digitize a company’s business processes and relationships. Too bad—that’s been taken over by the Chief Digital Officer. Love thinking about how new technologies might be put to use in your company’s products and services? Too bad, that job has been taken by the CTO. There are also a lot of exciting things happening in the world of analytics and big data, but CIOs may not get to focus on them in organizations that have created Chief Analytics Officers or Chief Data Scientists. In some cases, of course, these roles report to CIOs, but they often do not.

During the first few decades of the CIO role’s existence, a few legendary figures helped transform not only their companies, but their entire industries—people like Max Hopper at American Airlines, Charlie Feld at Frito-Lay, Gary Reiner at GE, and more recently Filippo Passerini at Procter & Gamble. They were CIO heroes that any young technical person could emulate. But these folks have all retired or become venture capitalists, and there are few legendary CIOs these days.

I am certainly still impressed by some CIOs—Kim Stevenson at Intel comes to mind. She is helping to make Intel’s products and its culture more analytical, and is delivering ROI to the company by the hundreds of millions if not billions. But there aren’t enough of these transformational CIOs, and even the ones that exist have to work closely with other executives to achieve major change. Stevenson, for example, works with the strategy team on Intel’s analytics. The key is that Stevenson is working along multiple fronts to transform the business, not just keep it going.

Today, none of my students wants to become a CIO or even to work in IT. They are interested in being digital entrepreneurs and innovators. They don’t want to focus on keeping the lights on. They want to work with emerging technologies and transform business.

The CIO job isn’t going away. But the most exciting positions in business technology are often already and will increasingly be outside of IT, in business functions and units that can be transformed by technology. Those people will need to know technology, but they’ll also need to know about marketing, HR, Chinese supply logistics, and distressed real estate.

We’ll still need IT people, but IT amateurs who run business functions and units in which IT is critical own the future. We’ll still need CIOs, but business/technology visionaries will largely work elsewhere.

Tom Davenport is the President’s Distinguished Professor of Information Technology and Management at Babson College, the co-founder of the International Institute for Analytics, a Fellow of the MIT Center for Digital Business, and a Senior Advisor to Deloitte Analytics

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