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A longtime student of IT's top leader asks, 'What is a CIO?'

What is a CIO? After years of observation, TechTarget's Scot Petersen knows what a CIO is not and gets close to a definition that holds up today.

What is a CIO? That's a question I have been asking CIOs, CIO wannabes and related experts for several years now. Though I've gotten many interesting answers, I don't know if I'm closer now to a real, satisfying answer (the "truth," if you will) than when I started.

I think I know what a CIO is not: A CIO is not someone who is trying to be all things to all people, and he or she is not an autocrat who must control every aspect of technology and the people who buy it, implement it and run it. A CIO is not someone who is just cutting the checks for a company's technology purchases. A good CIO isn't someone who waits around for someone to say, "XYX technology is ready for your enterprise." A CIO isn't even necessarily a CIO -- the top IT leader could be a director or manager or vice president.

Of course, these statements can be deconstructed and rendered meaningless by finding an example of a successful CIO who, indeed, is some or all of the above. However, what I keep coming back to in my quest to understand the CIO job is not so much a definition of the role as the leadership qualities of the person in charge of technology services and infrastructure inside your company.

Customer and tech savvy

A CIO also is not someone who sells company products to customers, unless, that is, those customers are company employees and the products are IT services. Niel Nickolaisen, CIO at Western Governors University and a columnist, didn't have a clear idea of what it was to be a CIO when he got his first CIO job. "In my arrogance, I seized the reins of IT power and immediately floundered. I had no idea what to do. I had no idea what a CIO should do. I had no idea how to manage or lead an IT group. I was failing," he wrote this month.

He got some advice from another successful CIO in the form of this cryptic statement: Remember, to your customers, IT is an icon on a display. "In other words," Niel explained, "we provide IT products and services … to our customers. This product-centric view of life creates significant opportunities for us to both align and improve IT."

A CIO is not someone who is trying to be all things to all people, and he or she is not an autocrat who must control every aspect of technology and the people who buy it, implement it and run it.

Okay, so that is getting us a little closer to the reality of the situation for CIOs. But once that IT/business alignment plan is in place, how is it best executed? Let's look at what a CEO has to say: David Castellani, chief executive of New York Life Retirement Plan Services, and a technology-savvy one, at that. In a recent interview with Christina Torode, editorial director of the CIO/IT Strategy Group at TechTarget, Castellani discussed how a CIO can think like a CEO.

"How do you maximize the use of that capital to the greatest effect for your business? That's a constant decision-making process you have to go through. In an environment where there is scarcity, how do you allocate with effect?" he said. "You have to have a vision for the future. Where is the business going to be three years from now or five years from now, knowing full well that the rate of change we are going through is tremendous?"

The two points of view from Nickolaisen and Castellani show that sometimes a good CIO isn't even a CIO, but rather more like a hybrid product manager/chief executive. So, does that get us to what is a CIO? Not close enough.

I will conclude with the words of another (now former) CIO, Harvey Koeppel, who also writes for In the forthcoming CIO Decisions magazine, he confronts a similar definition problem with cloud computing. What is it exactly? With so many flavors, variations and buzzwords, how can cloud computing be considered as an effective solution for a company? The answer for Harvey is to turn the question around: Is the business ready for the cloud?

What we call "cloud computing," he wrote, "is inconsequential compared to what we do with it. Is this dynamic really much different than how we deal with any other technologies? Do our internal and external customers, shareholders and stakeholders care about what we call it? I think not. Do they care about how we create sustainable business value and drive growth in increasingly complex, volatile and competitive markets? Of course they do."

So, a CIO creates sustainable business value and drives growth in increasingly complex, volatile and competitive markets? That's a definition I can live with.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Scot Petersen, former editorial director.

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