For many people, mention of the IT department still conjures images of dark cubicles and Dilbert comic strips, a place staffed with mysterious geeks who feel much more at home with gadgetry than people. But as the importance of technical knowledge becomes more integral to everyday business operations, something is changing. The role of the “IT nerd” is becoming less—well—nerdy.
Particularly for top technology positions, like that of chief information officer, the profile is starting to shift. Companies are hiring for the skills of a strategist, marketer and brainstormer as much as, if not more than, a tech wiz. And that’s reshaping the power dynamic, and salary structure, in executive suites across corporate America.
“There is absolutely an evolution taking place with CIOs,” said Tina Nunno, a Gartner analyst who recently penned a book on what chief information officers need to succeed.
Traditionally, the CIO has been focused internally, Nunno said, on the tech needs of staff throughout the company. The joke used to be that CIO stood for "Career Is Over." Now, with technology underlying so much of how businesses interact with consumers, the CIO is becoming a key adviser on the company’s external strategy.
“I tend to think of it as a transition from service provider to true partner in leadership,” she said.
The rise of the CIO coincides with several other trends in the business world over the past few years, and the growing importance of technology. Issues such as cybersecurity, running a business on mobile devices and social media branding now affect every industry. And many major future problems that companies face are tech challenges.
“All of a sudden, because of all these new devices, there are these new ways of working,” said Aaron Levie, chief executive officer of the cloud service Box. “The CIO is in the central role for deciding and designing the core technology strategy for the company. It has much more of a business mindset to it now, as opposed to a technology mindset.”
The shift is being reflected, in some part, in CIO paychecks as well. On the whole, the salaries for executive technology positions are on the rise, as the latest annual report from Robert Half Technology shows. Chief information officers are the highest paid among them, with an average salary between $157,000 and $262,500. That’s at least a 40 percent increase over the past five years—more than salaries have increased for CEOs or CFOs, the firm said.
With that rise, however, comes the requirement for a different set of skills, said Chris Brinkman, regional vice president of Robert Half.
“The questions of old when we used to interview CIOs were very technical: Talk to me about hands-on IT experience, how big was the department you managed, talk to me about up time and system availability—things things like that,” Brinkman said. Now, he said, the questions are about how technology initiatives they’ve implemented drive revenue and cut costs. Or how they’ve transformed their companies through mobility, cloud service and big data.
Finding candidates who can fill the role of this new type of CIO, Brinkman said, is difficult. But those who are qualified are in very high demand: The unemployment rate for those who are either seeking or have held CIO roles is just 1.7 percent.
"It's definitely a candidate's market right now," Brinkman said.
Zack Hicks, CIO for Toyota’s North American Operations said that his daily duties have changed drastically over the past five years. Today, he said, he’s tasked with thinking about how to get ahead of trends and problems, rather than purely reacting to issues as they come up within the company.
For example, Hicks and his team were key in developing and improving an application called “Dealer Daily,” which makes it easier for salespeople to handle paperwork from the showroom floor. He’s also thinking about the best ways Toyota can get ahead of the connected cars trend, examining not only how to navigate traffic, he said, but also brainstorming ways to make cars more of a consumer technology product by syncing up with relevant health data or other habits.
Other CIOs find themselves working even more closely with consumers. At Stanford, Health Care CIO Pravene Nath has focused on making medical apps that are as easy to use as any commercial app and give patients more control over their care, yet still protect patient information. The senior vice president of IT for Barneys, Abu Bakar, has infused the old-line luxury retailer with a digital mindset as well. He’s created stylish apps for consumers, while also arming employees with tablets that let them access shoppers’ online profiles to personalize a store visit.
Nunno, the Gartner analyst, said that not every company is always comfortable with seeing CIOs shift from “the guy who solved all our tech problems” to the one who’s co-leading the next marketing campaign. Good modern CIOs need to develop management and business skills, and become well-versed in proving their ideas are good for everyone at the company—and for the bottom line.
“Of course companies want a tech advantage,” she said. “But you have to be able to say: ‘Here’s this emerging technology, we need to start experimenting. It will make you uncomfortable, but if you try it it can make us healthier and more profitable.”
Companies that have a strong working relationship between their CIOs, CEOs and CFOs tend to outperform their peers on important metrics such as profit and revenue, said Linda Ban, who directs a regular study from IBM that examines relationships in the C-suite. In general, Ban said, chief executives are relying more on a wider bench of top advisers, and the CIO is often at the lead of that pack because of the way technology has transformed so many businesses.
"Frankly, I think many organizations got a wakeup call...back in 2006 and 2007 when iTunes became a really big thing," Ban said. "That is what really made a lot of organizations sit up and take notice. Who would have anticipated that a hardware manufacturer could have dramatically changed the music business?"
As companies better anticipate these shifts, they are changing their recruiting strategies for lower-level positions as well as executive ones. A LinkedIn report in August showed that liberal arts graduates are pouring into the tech field at a faster rate than technology majors—and not only in non-technical roles. In a survey of its own data, LinkedIn determined that software developer, project manager and IT support specialist were all in the top ten list of technology jobs that liberal arts majors get right out of college.
Hicks said that he’s definitely changing the criteria he uses when hiring at Toyota. He is increasingly interested in finding people who are not only technologically skilled, but who are able to identify and communicate ways to stay ahead of the curve. That means, in many cases, looking to fill tech positions with more and more candidates who have an MBA.
“We want them to go deep on a technology—we’re always looking for data scientists and security experts,” Hicks said. “But the differentiator is finding people who understand the context of what they’re doing."