This content is part of the Essential Guide: Careers in information technology: A CIO guide to getting ahead in IT

Essential Guide

Browse Sections
Manage Learn to apply best practices and optimize your operations.

The CIO position: Why you need to eat your own dog food

When it comes to the CIO position, the want ads have yet to catch up with the skill set du jour.

Every six months or so I check out the CIO want ads looking for trends and shifts in skill sets. The first thing that popped out in this go around was how many healthcare and financial services companies need to fill a CIO position. No surprise there given that financial services is often ahead of the technology curve and healthcare is playing digital catch up largely due to regulations.

Still, I reached out to a CIO who recruiters always seem to be after to find out which company was trying to steal him away these days and, yup, the most recent one was a large healthcare provider.

He turned it down because he would "feel like a fish out of water in healthcare."

Which brings up a skill set that is prominently on display in these CIO want ads -- industry-specific knowledge.

A law firm wants a CIO with "seven or more years of progressively responsible work experience managing information systems operations in law firms."

A healthcare provider seeks "a seasoned executive in a senior healthcare information systems leadership position such as a CIO or a number two within a large, complex healthcare organization; academic medical center and integrated delivery system experience is a plus."

And the "successful candidate" for a university CIO position "will have a demonstrated track record of leadership within complex IT organizations, ideally within an academic environment."

So, I asked this CIO what he thought about the value of industry-specific knowledge. Was it just as valued as technology acumen, for example?

Because technology is so integral to success in just about every industry, Banerji is pretty sure nontech companies already or will soon have the same expectation of their CIOs.

"Once you get to the "C" level, your industry background becomes less relevant and what matters most is your ability to understand business, technology, communication, teams, profitability … and to, of course, be successful, " he said.

"Less relevant" is an interesting perspective, given that industry know-how is so touted, at least in the want ads. As Shawn Banerji, managing director at executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates, explained it, the desire for industry knowledge was so high not too long ago that it wasn't enough for a candidate to know about banking. "They wanted you to know about consumer versus wholesale banking," he said.

Yet, the tides are turning once again, as they often do when it comes to the CIO position. Now companies across sectors don't just want a CIO with a top-notch technology background or industry-specific knowledge; they need an IT executive who has insight into the wants and needs of the customer, Banerji explained. In the technology sector, this has been true for years. "Those CIOs are expected to, as they say, eat their own dog food, and a lot of companies want that in their CIO," Banerji said. These CIOs are often put in front of potential customers to demo (or dogfood) their company's technologies.

"CIOs are not buying SAP based on features and functionalities; they are buying it because it's a strategic business decision, and they want the CIO of HP or Xerox or SAP to be the one showing them how they use it at their own company. So, because technology CIOs tend to have longer records with customers and because they are market facing, they are in demand. "

Because technology is so integral to success in just about every industry, Banerji is pretty sure nontech companies already or will soon have the same expectation of their CIOs.

The message is clear when it comes to career advancement: Know thy customer.

Dig Deeper on CIO career development and career paths