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CIOs who walk the line

CIOs today need to walk a fine line between business and technology – stepping out of the trenches while running smart IT projects.

As the IT economy picks up, CIOs are required to tap into what industry experts call 'business persuasion skills' in order to convince wary business managers that it's time to revive technology projects.

"You need to be able to go in front of a board and say, 'We need $50 million for this ERP implementation, and here's why,' '' said Jeff Markham, a division director at IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology.

You can't be too geeky, because they don't have the time and patience for that.
Craig Ballam

Robert Half Technology evaluates four skill sets in potential CIO candidates, including persuasion, financial management, tech expertise and leadership.

As enterprises work to merge business and IT divisions, technological know-how has become less crucial than business skills in many shops. In larger shops, CIOs are delegating more and more technology projects to senior IT professionals – business application specialists, infrastructure experts, and developers. That means a chief task for CIOs today is resource management -- determining which IT projects should get the most funding and full-time staff.

"Often those CIOs have very strong technical people reporting to them who take on the technical aspect," said Michael Gerrard, vice president of Stamford, Conn.-based tech research firm Gartner Inc.

CIOs step out of the trenches

"My group's large enough that I can't be down constantly in the weeds," said Craig Ballam, who heads a team of 65 as CIO of Chantilly, Va.-based GTSI, a vendor of IT services to government clients.

"I have to be able to sell this stuff to the executive, and everything we do requires a business analysis," Ballam said. "You can't be too geeky, because they don't have the time and patience for that."

More and more often, CIOs are being asked to show more initiative in helping map company strategies across departmental silos, rather than maintaining technology infrastructures, said Gerhard Cerny, CIO of Munich-based Siemens Business Services. "Who brings that to the table? The CIO is the only person in an organization that bridges all those business units."

However, CIOs must have enough technological expertise to manage their staff -- an equation that can be tricky.

"A new CIO inheriting 20, 30, 500 employees needs to be able to earn the respect of those employees right down to the help-desk," Markham said.

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Kim Perdikou, CIO of Sunnyvale, Calif-based Juniper Networks said her technology know-how plays a crucial role in hiring decisions.

"There has to be a balance, not so that you can make the right technology decisions but so that you can identify and hire the best people to make those decisions," she said.

For example, A CIO must be able to spot a poorly-researched proposal. They must also know enough to impress – not bluff – the boss. or to tell the boss all about the pros and cons of a new application they've just read about. "Our CEO is a CTO-wannabe," said GTSI's Ballam of his boss, Dendy Young. "I have to stay sharp, because he really likes to stay on the cutting edge."

Financial acumen remains a crucial skill for CIOs, even as fewer report to the finance department—and instead consult with CEOs directly. That's one aspect of the CIO's role that's unlikely to change. "Everybody thinks numbers at the end of the day," said Siemens' Cerny. "It's the common language of business."

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