CIO: Career or Profession?

I have loved every one of my years in the IT business, which, to give you an idea of how long that’s been, was called EDP, or electronic data processing, when I started in 1966. But lately I have come to realize that I had a career, not a profession. By definition, a profession implies such things as certification, global standards, and formal education. And, for those CFOs and CMOs who are successful enough, an automatic invitation into the ranks of upper management.

What about you? How automatic was your acceptance into the executive ranks as an equal? Thought so.

Those of us who have made the leap to upper management are, in all humility, self-made successes in that we had no formal training in how to succeed as a senior executive within large corporations. For me, that formal training didn’t exist 40 years ago. And, shamefully, it still doesn’t exist today.

To illustrate the point, let’s compare finance and IT. Finance is a profession in the strictest sense of the word. Finance professionals have been educated and trained in the fundamentals of how to do finance “stuff” properly and are certified as having achieved by a global standard of accomplishment. Finance is finance. CFOs around the world don’t make it up as they go along. Whatever type of finance you choose to specialize in, your fundamentals remain the same.

And how about physicians? How would you like to be on the operating room table and have the doctor say that he had dreamed up a new way of operating on a patient, and oh, by the way, that patient is you? No way, you say. Medicine is medicine. Once again, fundamental practices rule.

How, then, can we seriously refer to IT people as professionals when the management science of business technology has been missing all this time? We have had to essentially practice it with the best of intentions, but by no means have we had access to accepted fundamentals, as are in present in the recognized professions.

We have at best been artists then, and in a great many cases we have been doing a phenomenal job. But, in its current state, it is a stretch to call what we do truly a profession.

As I reflect on those currently maneuvering their way through this journey, I realize they will have perhaps a more complete set of skills and perspectives than I have had. I’m convinced that technology leaders of the future will also be pragmatic and do the following to succeed:

  • See technology as a matter of business management. They will intuitively grasp that business technology is strategic. They will know that copying what the competition is doing with technology will only strengthen the competition. Rather, the appropriate level and mix of investment in technology will be a function of what their own firms are trying to achieve strategically; these, they will know, have to be determined in partnership with their business colleagues.

  • Appreciate the critical importance of technology management. The next generation of leaders will understand they must invest in the management of technology as well as in the technology itself. If there is any remaining doubt today, there will not be in the future: technology per se is an equalizer. The firms that are best in managing it, win.

  • See the strategic nature of technology. Unless they appreciate that business technology plays a critical role in establishing or maintaining a strategic position, future leaders may well spend inappropriately. More often than not in the first half century of business technology it was thought about only tactically.