Are 'Gearhead' CIOs a Vanishing Species?

Ann All

Knowing that I regularly attempt to get into the heads of CIOs, a colleague sent me a Harvard Business Review column written by former CIO and CFO Susan Cramm, in which she asks: "Is the Typical CIO a Gear Guy?" (I think "guy" rather than "guy or gal" was used only in the interest of keeping the headline short and punchy. Having been a female CIO herself, it's safe to say Cramm didn't mean to exclude the professional women out there.)


Cramm describes how stunned she was when she attended a presentation on cloud-based e-mail and its business benefits, and the CIO who gave the presentation was peppered with technical questions from other CIOs. When Cramm expressed her surprise to other technology executives attending the event, one said, "E-mail's a big part of their job. It's who they are. If they give up e-mail, what do they have?" and another CIO chimed in to say she thought most of her peers were "gear guys."


Cramm goes on to mention this tech-centricity certainly isn't the case in her own professional network, "where CIOs focus on leadership first .. technology second."


Like Cramm, I hear a lot industry analysts and pundits say CIOs need to focus more on business needs and goals. But the CIOs I speak with seem very grounded in business. For instance, all four of the CIOs I've interviewed thus far for my CIO Conversations, (shameless plug!) a series of interviews in which tech execs discuss their professional challenges and opportunities with me, possess degrees in both business and technology.


My latest victim (er, subject), Norton Healthcare CIO Joseph De Venuto, has a bachelor's degree in computer science from the University of Kentucky and an MBA from the University of Louisville. Though De Venuto spoke proudly of projects like rolling out desktop virtualization, the technology clearly is implemented to make it easier for Norton to provide better patient care.


Norton introduced desktop virtualization first on mobile carts to make it easier for caregivers to call up patient information when and where they need it. It's also being introduced in Norton's newest hospital where, De Venuto told me, "we were also trying to leverage single sign-on and a roaming profile so a clinician could go from room to room and stay exactly where they were in the session as they moved from room to room."


De Venuto wrapped our interview by telling me:

People are used to saying, "If I buy that technology, it'll fix that problem." Instead of saying "If I buy something, it'll fix it," we need to start looking at it as a tool in the tool belt. It's not the solution in and of itself. People will say, "We implemented it and it didn't work. It was a bad technology." Not necessarily. It may have been a bad implementation.

That doesn't sound like a "gear guy" to me.


Similarly, University of Kentucky CIO Vince Kellen has a bachelor's degree in communications and a master's degree in information systems, both from DePaul University. His background includes stints helping run the family business, as a journalist, in retail management and as the owner of an IT consulting firm. With a resume like that, he told me, a business focus comes pretty naturally. A CIO needs the same kinds of skills as his/her C-level counterparts: executive leadership, communication, inspiration, coordination, motivating teams of people, speaking to customers.


Kellen described the CIO role as "more of an IT industry analyst who needs to understand IT's impact on the business." However, Kellen doesn't buy into the idea popular in some quarters that CIOs don't need a technical background. He said:

You have to master the technology to enable your time to be focused on the business.

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