Is That Your Final Answer? Prepping for the CIO Interview

Ann All

Yesterday I wrote about lengthening CIO tenures. One of the sources I cited, Forrester Research analyst Sharyn Leaver, thinks the improving economic outlook may prompt CIOs who are being asked to do nothing more than cut costs to look for new and more innovation-oriented challenges elsewhere. Directionally Correct blogger Russ Aebig's take is a bit different: that CIOs will still be under pressure to produce short-term results rather than make more strategic tech investments. Those who can't generate the desired results may be forced out.


Either way, whether exits are desired or forced, the result may be shrinking CIO tenures. That got me to thinking about CIOs who may be in the market for a new job. What kinds of questions can they expect to face at an interview? I think a article on hiring a CIO, complete with suggested questions from Martha Heller, president of CIO recruiting specialist Heller Search Associates, offers good insights.


Like CIO Dashboard blogger Chris Curran, another source I cited in yesterday's post on longer tenures, Heller thinks companies need to look for CIOs that mesh with their needs. She puts CIOs into three categories:

  • Operationally-oriented CIOs, whose strengths are service delivery, project management and cost control. However, they are not the executives you want leading large transformational efforts. They match up with Curran's Value Manager category.
  • Business-oriented CIOs, who are good at relationship building and IT governance. They may be experienced in a vertical industry, but not necessarily on technical know-how. Heller says such folks are a good choice only if there is a strong IT operations team in place or an ability to build one. Curran's closest equivalent seems to be the Transformer, though there's probably a bit of an overlap with Curran's Strategist.
  • Innovators, who can create customer-facing products that generate revenue and perform well at companies with big IT budgets and data-oriented products. They seem similar to Curran's Strategist.


Heller says companies can forget about getting one CIO who can do it all and should focus instead on the two or three areas in which it most needs IT-driven help. For the CIO job candidate, this suggests you should do some research and focus on companies with needs that are well suited to your skill sets. Don't just look at basics like the vertical and company size, try to get a handle on past IT history and future IT plans. If possible, track down some interviews with former CIOs and check those out.


Here are six of Heller's ideas for questions and her advice on what to look for in answers, which suggests how CIO candidates might want to frame their responses:


"How have you changed the culture of your current IT organization?" In your answer, stress terms such as client focus, business focus and accountability.


"On a scale of one to 10, how would your current business community rate your IT organization? How do you know that?" If possible, mention your customer-satisfaction survey process. Don't have one? Establish one now.


"What are your most important relationships in your current role, and how do you maintain them?" DO NOT answer "vendors." If you've got a good relationship with your CFO, that probably speaks well to your ability to spend money wisely and get projects done. Your relationship with the CFO isn't that great? Read these tips on building a better relationship with your CFO.


"What is the most exciting technology advancement you have made?" Even though they're asking about technology, it's a good idea to frame your answer in business rather than technical terms. The example offered: "I increased market share in a key demographic by 10 percent by consolidating data centers and doing business-intelligence testing." If they ask you to elaborate on data center consolidation and/or business intelligence, feel free to get a little more techie.


"Tell us about your views on services-oriented architecture." This may be a bit of a trick question, in that interviewers may want to hear whether you can translate complex technical topics into understandable business language. Be prepared to do so.


"What are your thoughts about outsourcing?" It's best to be neither overly positive nor overly negative, but to mention both pros and cons of outsourcing and stress that it's not a "one-size-fits-all" solution. Mention the importance of managing outsourcing relationships, sharing some of these thoughts on different outsourcing models and items that should always be in place like a good governance structure.

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