Go to any tech conference and sift through the deck of business cards you bring home, and you'll see the litany
of different titles for senior-level IT managers: director of information technology, vice president of information technology, senior director of systems, chief technology officer, information systems director, senior manager of IT systems development, IT leader, vice president of technology, vice president of IS, director of computing infrastructure, corporate director of IT, senior IS operations manager, network services manager.
Some cards might even say, simply, CIO.
Why so many different titles for these high-ranking technology executives? Why not just call them all CIOs? After all, a CIO by any other name is likely to be doing the same job. In fact, if you enter the phrase "de facto CIO" into the Google search engine, you get 99,200 returns -- which shows there are quite a few people on the planet doing a CIO's job -- regardless of what their business cards say.
It's a cultural thing
"It's not always the same job," said Ellen Kitzis, group vice president of Gartner Inc.'s executive programs and co-author of the 2004 book The New CIO Leader."
"It depends on where you reside in the organizational hierarchy. A non-CIO title could mean you only own part of IT -- or only support certain applications. There's a different span of control." Kitzis said it's also possible that the myriad of monikers represent legacy titles and that some organizations simply don't see a need to add CIO to its company masthead.
"Not everyone has chosen to adopt them," she said.
Richard Service's official title is vice president of information services and CIO of St. George Crystal Ltd. in Jeannette, Pa. Before that, he was operations administrator. Before that, he said, he had four other titles he can't even remember. The CIO position at St. George didn't even exist until the board of directors anointed him.
Service agrees that IT job titles are reflective of an individual company's culture.
"In a lot of cases, I think [IT heads] are still under finance or operations depending of the nature of their business and the personalities of their leaders," he said.
But the CIO title is not reserved for executives with huge staffs; Service represents about half of his entire IT staff.
Sandy Hofmann, CIO of Mapics Inc. in Alpharetta, Ga., also believes that titles reflect a company's culture -- and opinion of the role technology plays in business initiatives.
"The very use of the word 'chief' conveys more position power than 'director' and may reflect the importance that a business places on the responsibilities," she said.
Hofmann said in the old days, CIOs were called data processing managers. Then they graduated to MIS directors as technology became more central to business.
Today, Hofmann is in charge of IT, including the data center and networks, telecommunications, facilities, purchasing, enterprise business systems/applications, governance and project office.
"[But] the scope of responsibility can be so different from company to company," she added. "About the only constant is that an enterprise's information technology -- the data center -- is present."
It's a size and complexity thing
Suzanne Gordon, CIO at SAS Institute Inc. in Cary, N.C., began her job as vice president of IT with directors reporting to her. Then SAS brass realized the position was more complex and global in nature (and that other companies were creating CIO positions) and gave Gordon the title she has today. She believes the size and complexity of a company's IT infrastructure determines if there is a CIO on board.
"I imagine this scenario happens at other companies as the breadth of IT has grown from a centralized mainframe, to complex networks and all types and sizes of computing equipment," she said. "The complexity has just grown so much that we need different levels to recognize the scope."
Gordon feels some titles with less gravitas aren't a fair indication of the work required -- but she also feels there are many cases where the CIO title is misused, particularly in smaller firms where IT isn't so complex or strategic. "[But] I have probably met more CIOs who had a job similar to mine that not," she said.
Jevin Jensen, director of IS technical services for Calhoun, Ga.-based Mohawk Industries Inc., has another idea of why companies may be hesitant to knight their top IT warriors with a CIO title.
"Many IS people just don't have the business skills, so [executives] don't want those people to have a title and report to the CEO," he said. But Jensen said he sees that changing now. He reports to the CIO, who in turn reports to the CEO.
CIO to go?
One of these days, the IT buck might not stop with the CIO, and you can just toss the title onto the heap with the all the others.
"One title coming into more popularity is chief administration officer or everything that isn't covered by the COO, CFO and CEO," said Mapics' Hofmann, who sees more and more CIOs operating like CAOs.
"One thing is for sure, CIO no longer means 'Career is Over' … maybe it means 'Change is Opportunity,' she added.
But Kitzis is more optimistic about the CIO's staying power. She believes chief administrative officers, chief security officers, chief knowledge officers, chief process officers -- and all the rest -- will come and go while CIOs remain a growing and respected bunch.
"Sometimes you see the desire to pull out of a piece of the CIO's duties and elevate it to its own position," she said. "But eventually it's rolled back into the CIO role. You just can't keep fragmenting ownership."
And according to David Guzman, chief research officer for Boston-based Yankee Group and former CIO at Owens & Minor Inc. in Richmond, Va., CIOs are making a name for themselves and proving to be indispensable.
"IT is the one department that has a cross-view of the entire company," he said. "The chief information officer is playing an increasingly crucial role in front-line business change and is earning a seat at the table of leadership."
Ed Parry has covered IT for TechTarget since 2000. He is a freelance writer in Chattanooga, Tenn.