What does it take to be a CIO: Passion and coding skills

What does it take to be a CIO? In this Searchlight, MIT CIO Symposium speakers share their journeys, while WWDC 2014 says coding skills are a must.

How do CIOs make their way to the top of the IT food chain? SearchCIO asked award-winning MIT CIO Symposium speakers and panelists just that in Cambridge last month. For starters, we didn't find a single CIO who grew up saying, "I want to lead an IT organization some day!" And that's not surprising, since the CIO role, by most accounts, didn't come into vogue until the early 1990s.

Nor did most of their career paths follow a straight line from IT novice to IT chief. Most of these superstar CIOs, as you'll see in our video interviews, took a roundabout route to the top, moving from company to company and often shuttling between IT roles and roles in the business. "It was a very long path that had a lot of divergent steps that really allowed me to build up my skill set that ultimately positioned me to serve the role I serve today," said AT&T CIO Thaddeus Arroyo.

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Despite the route being uncertain and few role models to speak of, however, these CIOs did seem to have an important thing going for them: Many of them talked about an early affinity for math -- and, once they were exposed to computer science and programming languages, they fell in love with computers.

Dell Global CIO Andi Karaboutis, who grew up loving science and math, started out as an industrial engineer in college, but once she took her first FORmula TRANslation course (today's C course), she switched to computer science and didn't look back. Arroyo, a math major, not only got turned on to computers in college, but quickly saw what IT could do for business, earning his MBA while working at his first job at Southwestern Bell Telephone. Kristin Darby, CIO at Cancer Treatment Centers of America, found her passion for software development while working for her family's home lighting company when the business got involved in home automation.

But what about today, now that the CIO role is pretty entrenched and everybody and their uncle understands the value of IT? Are there required IT skill sets for CIOs? To what extent should CIOs develop skills pertaining to mobility, big data, app development, security, data analytics and code?

After Apple's WWDC on Monday, the value of learning -- or at least understanding ­-- code was made clear. Apple's announcement of Swift, a new programming language designed internally from the ground up, allows users to make iOS and Mac apps with ease after learning the syntax. Chris Lattner, director of Apple's Developer Tools department, hopes that by making programming more fun and approachable, "We'll appeal to the next generation of programmers and help redefine how computer science is taught."

Who knows? The day may be coming when kids grow up saying they want to be a CIO.

  • Why are startups so attractive to the young workforce? It might be the innovative, fast-paced and exciting environment -- or it could be for the money. Though average wages tend to be lower at younger companies in the U.S., 25- to 34-year-olds earn 3.1% more at companies that are five years old or younger than at well-established firms. This same age group makes up 27% of young companies and 18% of larger firms, according to a report by Paige Ouimet of the University of North Carolina and Rebecca Zarutskie of the Federal Reserve Board.
  • Finally, a big sigh of relief for alleged copyright infringers across the pond. The European Court of Justice has sided with common sense, ruling that digital copies shown on a browser's computer screen -- or held temporarily in a cache -- do not infringe on copyright law. The real reason to read about the ruling in this long-running case (since 2009) is for the cat-on-computer image.
  • Japanese telecommunications and Internet corporation SoftBank recently unveiled a robot named Pepper. What's so special about Pepper? It uses an "emotional engine" and a cloud-based artificial intelligence system to analyze human emotion based on gestures, expressions and tone of voice. (Pepper makes robots from the Jetsons look like the Tin Man.)
  • Looking for an "epic" office prank? Thursday at the SummerCON security conference in NYC, hackers Brandon Edwards and Ben Nell demonstrated how easy it is to control a common desktop telephone from any computer on its local network.

Previously in Searchlight, What CIOs can learn from Apple's Beats purchase and Digital endeavors require fearlessness. Let us know what you think about the story; email Emily McLaughlin, associate site editor.

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