CW@50: The evolution of the CIO

From working in statistics departments to becoming a key part of any business transformation – as Computer Weekly gets ready to celebrate its 50th anniversary, we look back at the changing role of IT leaders

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Computer Weekly might be celebrating its half-century this year, but the CIO role is much younger. As computers started to become commonplace in major organisations through the 1970s and 1980s, companies started employing IT professionals to help make the most of mainframe machines. 

Technology management evolved slowly at first, with pioneering CIOs – some of who are featured in this article – starting to take on key positions in big businesses through the 1980s. By the mid-to-late 1990s, the IT director or CIO role was a more commonly held position in major companies. Yet the major changes associated with the role were still to come. 

Over the years, the CIO moved from being an operationally focused specialist to an outwardly engaged executive. The pace of that transition increased commensurately with demands for new technology. As the impact of the internet and consumer IT affected the use of technology in major enterprises, the role of the CIO continued to change. 

Today, great CIOs are a key component of the teams that lead major organisations. Below we talk with some of the people who have witnessed the development of the IT leadership role first hand, and we present some of the key developments in the CIO position during the past few decades. 

Understanding the rise of the IT leader 

Jonathan Mitchell is an industry veteran who completed his first computer program in 1979 and took up his first management position in 1986, before the title CIO was in common use. “At that point in time, IT professionals often worked in the statistics department,” he says, adding that technology staff spent much of their time working on data processing and payroll matters. 

“I saw the IT director role really begin to emerge in the late 1980s,” says Mitchell. “All of a sudden, the technology staff at blue chip firms went from being a small proportion of the statistics department to a team in its own right with hundreds of employees. 

“Companies started employing IT professionals to support the introduction of line-of-business applications and you started seeing the term CIO being used readily though the 1990s.” 

Mitchell fulfilled senior IT roles at BP and GlaxoSmithKline, and was CIO at Rolls-Royce for almost a decade. He says the pace of technological change has been remarkable during his time at the IT leadership coalface.

The standalone mainframes and desktops of the early days of the CIO role are very different to the cloud-connected mobiles and apps of today’s digital business. Yet, in many ways, Mitchell believes there is consistency in terms of processes – CIOs should always have been focused on delivering value from IT-led change. 

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He says there was a “bad spell” during the 1990s when the rapid rise of technology meant people from outside the IT department were often given the lead in technology departments. Such appointments were made before the much talked about alignment between IT and the rest of the business had taken place. What emerged, says Mitchell, was often executives running IT departments that were isolated from the rest of the organisation. 

Over time, thankfully, CIOs have proven their worth and the technology chief has become a fundamental part of a successful business. “What we have now are a blend of men and women in CIO positions who have mastered their craft in terms of technology, but who also hold a great mix of engagement, relationship and collaboration skills,” says Mitchell. 

“The IT leader who is employed to simply keep control of overheads has been in decline for years. The emphasis on operations management has been reduced. The very best CIOs have cracked service reliability by working closely with their business peers and trusted external partners. These IT leaders are now working on more interesting and creative areas, which allows them as executives to have more credibility around the rest of the business.” 

Becoming the right-hand executive to the boss 

Samuel Medina boasts experience of running IT for some of the biggest companies in the world. As head of strategy and transformation for global insurance and healthcare at Tata Consultancy Services, he now uses his experience to inform other CIOs about best practice in technology strategy. Medina assumed his first IT leadership role at Citibank in the early 1980s and was subsequently CIO at Xerox, Berkshire Hathaway and Willis Group Holdings. 

“Through my time in IT, the role became both more interesting and more demanding,” he says. “It wasn’t enough to just be a great technologist, increasingly you had to be a professional diplomat. You had to be the person that delivered business and technology initiatives. You couldn’t lock yourself away and say that certain tasks were the responsibility of other IT professionals or people around the business. The global CIO ended up being the right-hand executive to other C-level leaders. The role became all about execution.” 

When something goes wrong, it’s normally the CIO who gets called first. When things go really well for the business, you’re probably the last one who gets called
Samuel Medina, Tata Consultancy Services

Medina says he has lived through three types of IT leadership role: the traditional, operationally focused CTO; the CIO, who focuses on the relationship between technology and the rest of the business; and the transformational CIO, who works with the C-suite to identify the two or three key change projects. He says he increasingly found himself in the latter category, and often moved positions or companies every two or three years. 

“I guess I was doing the role of the transformational CIO before it was labelled as such,” says Medina. “I lived in many different countries and people would ask me to locate to a particular region and help to lead business IT. I guess I stumbled into the role, but it’s something I really enjoyed.” 

Fulfilling a global CIO role is not without its challenges. Medina mentions both the physical and time pressures of the position. “Even if you’re able to complete a multimillion-dollar programme, you still have to worry about the day-to-day operations of the business,” he says. “When something goes wrong, it’s normally the CIO who gets called first. When things go really well for the business, you’re probably the last one who gets called. But it’s provided me with a great career.” 

Helping users to work efficiently and effectively 

Andrew Marks, former CIO and now the UK and Ireland managing director for energy in Accenture Technology Strategy, says he might not have been around in the days of punch cards but he has been involved in the industry long enough to track and trace the development of the CIO position. Marks took his first IT management role in the mid-1990s. Interestingly, he says the main aim of the CIO position remains the same. 

“I just wanted the user community to be happy and for the organisations I worked for to have easy access to the right tools they needed to do their jobs efficiently and effectively – and that remains true for CIOs today,” says Marks. “Great IT leadership has always been about enablement.” 

The role of the modern CIO is often portrayed as a significant departure from the IT director of 10 or 20 years ago. Yet Marks says in many ways leadership of today’s IT organisation – with its ecosystem of supplier partners and cloud providers – represents a subtle evolution of some of the strategies that technology executives were pushing through around the turn of the millennium. 

He says smart CIOs have always looked for partnerships. Marks remembers working with his finance director to negotiate the move from a legacy purchase and maintain software deal to a rental deal during one of his first IT management positions. He also remembers trimming an internal IT department in response to external economic pressures. That process resulted in a strategy to engage five providers across key business service areas rather than a single outsourcer.  

“I guess it was quite forward thinking at the time,” says Marks, reflecting on the push to use multiple external service providers in an ecosystem. “The strategy wasn’t about the cloud, because that type of provision wasn’t available then. However, we were looking to take advantage of the internet and to use offshore remote service provision.” 

Engaging successfully with people across the business 

Richard Corbridge, CIO for the Health Service Executive (HSE) in Ireland, looks back on his own career – and the evolving role of the IT leader – and questions the extent to which the CIO has become a key C-suite executive. He refers back to the origins of the role and suggests IT chiefs were expected to step up and provide the fulcrum point for business and technology. 

“The prominence of the role was meant to indicate that IT was at last set for a place at the top table, with a badge of necessity equal to the chief financial officer [CFO] or chief operating officer [COO] in any organisation,” says Corbridge. “Yet here we are in 2016 and the number of CIOs at the top table is still growing, rather than the IT leader being a ubiquitous presence. There are so many more C-suite roles competing for that seat that the CIO is in danger of being diluted.” 

It is not all bad news, though. According to Corbridge, there are important positives that can be generated from tracing the evolution of the CIO role. “Think of the challenges that have been overcome since the late 1980s, the technology that CIOs globally have been able to usher into the world and the disruption this has caused,” he says. 

“Technology has involved an eye-watering pace of change and businesses would not have been able to make the most of that transformation without CIOs continuing to develop their skill sets. The board now understands technology; the consumerisation of what would have been an equivalent of super compute in the 1980s is now in every pocket, often in multiple guises.” 

Corbridge doubts the extent to which pioneering executives from the early days of the CIO role, such as Al Zipf at the Bank of America or Max Hopper at American Airlines, would have dreamt that the huge mainframe style computers of yesterday could evolve in today’s form of decentralised enterprise IT. Yet what remains common to those pioneer CIOs and today’s vanguard IT leaders is an ability to engage with the rest of the business. 

Recognising the new CIO and the rise of diversity 

Corbridge believes it is more important for CIOs today to be able to describe how technology can solve a business problem, rather than to have a background in IT itself.

He points to the recent Tech Excellence Awards in Ireland, where a member of his team – Yvonne Goff – won Technology Professional of the Year. Goff, who is chief clinical information officer at the HSE, is the first person to win the award without an academic background in technology. Corbridge suggests such achievements help demonstrate how the winds of change in IT leadership have turned into a full-blown gale.

As technology professionals, we should celebrate the role of CIO – it is a badge of honour
Richard Corbridge, Health Service Executive

“As technology professionals, we should celebrate the role of CIO – it is a badge of honour,” he says. 

It is a theme that chimes with Lisa Heneghan, global head of KPMG’s CIO advisory practice, who has recently completed the firm’s 2016 CIO survey of 3,000 IT leaders alongside recruitment specialist Harvey Nash. The research also points to the continued evolution of the CIO position. 

“The key change during the life of the IT leader is that the CIO has moved from being a functional expert to a business expert,” she says, echoing the sentiments of earlier experts in the field. “Tech chiefs traditionally managed IT as a black box for the rest of the business. The pace of change – particularly during the past five years – means the role is now less about control and more about collaboration and the management of complex, cross-business supply chains.” 

Heneghan says the change in the role of the CIO has been accompanied by a transformation in the type of people becoming IT leaders. Just as non-IT people have found themselves working at the interface between business and technology, the CIO role has started to appeal to a broader church of candidates from increasingly diverse backgrounds.

“As an industry, we need to be open to learning and flexible enough to create a new culture which supports the digital world,” she says. 

The KPMG and Harvey Nash research, for example, demonstrates that the number of women in IT leadership roles has grown beyond one in 10 worldwide for the first time, and has increased by more than a third during the past 12 months.

“It’s become more customary for women to be CIOs and, as candidates, they often have attributes that match with the evolving requirements of the IT leadership role, such as collaboration and engagement,” says Heneghan.

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