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Just one way to become a CIO

People often ask us how to become a CIO. Happily, our expert Scott Lowe has offered to detail exactly the path he took — and the many steps required — to become a CIO:

This month’s topic here at is career management. It happens to overlap with what has become a period of significant change in my own career path. Recently, I left my CIO role and this week, I shared with you the lessons I learned along the way. Here’s my story of the steps I took to become a CIO and the experiences that supported my CIO career.

In 1994, I had just completed two years at a community college as a computer science major and had planned to transfer to a four-year institution to complete a Bachelor of Science degree. However, at the urging of my father, I applied for a job with a title of telecommunications technician for a New York state agency charged with supporting the efforts of K-12 school districts. I quickly grew to love what I was doing and made the decision to forgo — for a time — that computer science degree. I discovered that the job title was a bit misleading, as I was responsible for designing both voice and data networks, managing servers, developing and maintaining complex databases and directly supporting users. It was certainly a “jack of all trades” kind of job. I learned that I liked being a generalist.

During this period of time, I set a personal goal to become an IT director by the age of 35. It was sort of an arbitrary deadline but seemed reasonable. Four years later, I moved to my next job, where I managed the systems and network and services department for a college. Here, I got my first real taste of management and worked for someone that was willing to help me develop in this space.

Bear in mind that I was 24 years old; now, at the ripe “old” age of 38, I can say that I was a kid and I did what many kids of the male variety do … I followed a girl. I moved to the Washington, D.C., area. The girl is now history, but what I gained in that transition has been incredible. This was during the dot-com days, so moving around was more accepted. My first job in D.C. was not a good fit; I was bored, and it showed. After less than a year, I moved to a financial services firm on a contract basis, where I learned the ins and outs of working in a large-scale hosted environment. Although I’ve worked primarily in small settings, this “big shop” mentality really helped me build robust environments later.

By the time the contract was over, I had secured my first senior IT management position for a nonprofit association. I managed a team of two. We spent the next two-and-a-half years building custom content management systems for state agencies and creating communication solutions for the association membership.

My goal was to become an IT director at 35, but sheer luck helped me make it happen seven years sooner.

I also got married. My wife and I had our son in December of 2003. Although I’d been through a number of job changes and had moved a lot, having a child was, by far, the most impactful event of my life. We did it again in February of 2005, when our daughter was born. Why do I include these events? Because these life events have had more of an impact on my career than all of the planning in the world ever could! I mean that in the most positive way possible; my wife and kids are the most important things in my life.

My wife made the decision that she wanted to stay home with our children. Living in the D.C. area on one salary was simply not an option. Since I loved working in higher education, I chose an IT director position at a small private college in upstate New York, just 30 miles from my hometown. I learned how to manage a larger team of 15, to delegate better, undertake larger projects and work across a larger organization. I made another move to a CIO position for a small, private college in Missouri in 2006. Although a small organization, the work was more complex and I engaged with the organization in a much deeper way, managing technology and undertaking and leading major, non-IT focused organization-wide projects.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, financial challenges and crises in leadership reared their heads in the organization. For the first time in my career, I felt “burned out.”

My stress level was off the charts. I realized that, with that state of mind, I was about to become a CIO who wasn’t helpful to the organization or to my team. I saw no light at the end of the tunnel and felt that it was no longer possible to achieve my goals at work. The organization needed someone that could better meld with the emerging culture, and that wasn’t me. It was time to go. Luckily, I’ve built a solid history as a consultant, trainer and writer, which can sustain my family while I decide on my next CIO role. — Scott Lowe

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