CIO certifications: Do they matter?

Many CIOs are certified in project management, ITIL and Six Sigma, according to the recent SearchCIO.com salary survey. But do certifications really matter?

The top three certifications that senior IT executives are enrolled in or planned to take are project management, IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) and Six Sigma, according to the recent SearchCIO.com salary survey. Other certifications listed included Certified Information Security Manager, Certified Information Systems Auditor, Certified Information Systems Security Professional and even the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) licen...

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But talk to CIOs, former CIOs and recruiters who focus on the IT industry, and they agree that certifications generally have no bearing on who occupies the top job within the IT department.

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"We get requests about certifications or specific experience 10% or less of the time," said Jon Davis, director of western operations at Matrix Resources Inc., an Atlanta-based IT staffing and solutions provider. "More often than not, companies are looking for functional experience."

Companies will ask for a CPA from time to time or someone versed in Six Sigma or some other improvement methodology if that's part of the company culture, Davis said. However, employers are more interested in people who understand the role of technology and how to turn that into a competitive advantage.

"Certifications are more for the doers," Davis said. "The CIO, as the name implies, sits at the executive table and represents technology, is the voice for technology. That person needs to understand the business, the challenges and opportunities and how to use technology to reach the company's goals."

Praveen Chopra, chief supply chain officer and CIO of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, agrees with Davis. "I'm seeing the role of CIO evolving in the truest sense as a business leader, the company's business technologist," Chopra said. "There's a need for any CIO to clearly understand the key business drivers and translate them into enabling technology, and vice versa, to clearly articulate the business value of technology initiatives."

Chopra doesn't have a fistful of industry certifications to show employers and said he doesn't believe other CIOs need them either.

For workers coming up through a technology department, certifications certainly are important to show expertise in a particular area. But at a certain point, the value of certifications is supplanted by general business knowledge and acumen in key business strategies. "The change occurs when you find yourself managing upward and outward, rather than inward and downward," said John Stevenson, former CIO and current board member of the Society for Information Management Foundation. "That's where the lines start to break" between industry certifications and more general business knowledge required to be a CIO.

In a classically aligned organization with a hierarchical reporting structure, that change occurs at the director level, those who report to either a senior vice president or the CIO. "Certification proves you know your stuff, but at the director level, a master's degree or an MBA would be more important than certifications, although the Project Management Professional certification is more general and could be valuable," Stevenson said.

Not everyone in an IT organization wants the corner office and the seat at the executive table that goes with being the CIO. For those people, finding a specialty and obtaining key certifications are vital to growing with an organization or moving to a larger one. "If you love your specialty and believe that's your niche, get the one or two key certifications in that area and make the conscious choice to remain in your area," Stevenson said.

Matt Bolch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. He can be reached at mbolch@mindspring.com.

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