What You Need to Know About Becoming a Chief Information Officer

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If boardroom positions were to have a hall of fame, chief information officer (CIO) would be its most recent inductee. Gaining notoriety and a seat at the business leader table in the 1980s, CIOs’ roles were pretty straightforward at the time. The day-to-day tasks they take care of today are much more hands-on in nature and related to the execution of various policies and initiatives, rather than simply focusing on overseeing information technology departments.

Regardless of what they do, however, becoming a chief information officer requires a blend of hard skills, soft skills, leadership, and business acumen. Much like attaining this position itself, none of these traits can be gained overnight. Pursuing a Master of Science in Management Information Systems from the University of Alabama at Birmingham can enable you to ascend the corporate ladder and refine your management skills. This 100% online program allows you to balance your busy schedule and develop the knowledge, skill sets, leadership traits, and communication capabilities that CIOs and similar job titles require. Even if your bachelor’s degree wasn’t in information technology, you can still pursue a Master of Science in Management Information Systems through UAB’s bridge program.

Tremendous learning opportunities and extraordinary business leadership possibilities are attainable by taking advantage of the master’s in management information systems online curriculum.

Chief Information Officer business woman gazing at digital screen

What does a chief information officer do?

Before getting into the specifics of how to reach CIO status, it’s important to understand what CIOs do on a regular basis and how they differ from chief technology officers (CTOs). As previously mentioned, CIOs became more prominent and commonplace in the 1980s, according to The Enterprisers Project. However, unsatisfied with their job description that pigeonholed them as professionals charged with overseeing information technology departments, CIOs voluntarily took on more responsibilities, which have grown in number over time. They often include the following:

  • Executing digital transformation initiatives for their organizations
  • Building, maintaining, and/or consolidating digital platforms
  • Managing the day-to-day operations of computer technologies and systems
  • Investigating state-of-the-art or developing technologies to determine if they’re worthy of adoption
  • Creating or hosting websites so their company can maintain an online presence and enhance customer engagement
  • Keeping tabs on technological trends so organizations can keep pace with competition or stay ahead

In short, if it has anything to do with information technology ― be it data analytics, cloud computing, or data integration ― chief information officers have a part to play.

What distinguishes a chief information officer from chief technology officer?

Since so much of their responsibilities and focus is on technology, one might think that CIOs and CTOs are quite similar. Because many of their duties can overlap, some organizations may consider the roles to be more or less the same. It really depends on the company, its work culture, and how it decides to delegate responsibilities, noted Jenny Peng, chief technology officer for Aptean, an enterprise resource management software development firm.

“Here at Aptean, both CIO and CTO roles are tasked to be technology thought brokers in the enterprise, helping to figure out how to leverage technology to enable the business,” Peng explained. “The difference with the CTO role is that I am looking to commercialize and monetize technology. In the CIO role, I’m focused more on optimizing, streamlining, and allowing employees to be more productive with tools to get their job done more quickly and easily.”

Digital transformation plays a big role in organizations’ goals of achieving greater efficiency. Most Americans these days are in constant interaction with digital tools. Indeed, according to polling conducted by Gallup, 85% of respondents used at least one of six products with digital elements, including navigation and ride-sharing apps, video and music streaming services, intelligent home personal assistants, or smart home devices.

CIOs aim to utilize existing or emerging digital technologies so they can help an organization enhance efficiency and work output. A CIO may work in collaboration with a CTO to streamline digital transformation or adoption.

To whom does a chief information officer report?

Even though CIO roles are on the high end of the corporate ladder, there is a hierarchical structure to “chief” positions. In other words, CIOs still have bosses. Generally speaking, they report to the chief executive, meaning the CEO or president. According to a study conducted by Deloitte, 51% of CIOs in the U.S. report to CEOs, with 27% going to chief financial officers (CFOs), and 17% to chief operating officers (COOs). Worldwide, CEOs are the point person for CIOs as well, but the reporting structure is more diversified, with 46% going to the CEO, 28% to the CFO, 11% to the COO, and 10% to an organization’s boardroom as a whole.

The fact that the CIO reports directly to the CEO, who is often the face of an organization, speaks to the level of influence CIOs have in business administration. Carol Lynn Thistle, managing director for Heller Search Associates, a CIO recruitment firm, told The Enterprise Project that since CIOs are charged with understanding all the ins and outs of a company’s work processes, it’s only natural for them to report to the CEO, who serves as a company’s lead decision-maker.

“The CIO is required to know every aspect of operations in a company,” Thistle explained. “In order to do that, they must be situated correctly on the organizational chart. With every company essentially becoming a technology company, the CIO reporting to the CEO makes the most sense, regardless of industry.”

What does a chief information security officer do?

Another C-suite position that often gets confused with the CIO is chief information security officer (CISO). Similar to other CTO or CIO, the responsibilities and duties of a CISO can vary from one company to the next, but they’re generally charged with overseeing information security departments and the professionals who are responsible for keeping their company’s data protected.

As much as technology has advanced over the years, so have the threats, as cyberattackers are constantly seeking to purloin sensitive information that can lead to financial ruin, both for consumers as well as businesses. In 2019, for instance, there were 1,473 data breaches in the U.S., according to the Identity Theft Resource Center. That was an increase of 17% from the 1,257 reported breaches in 2018.

No industry is immune to these incursions. The business sector experienced the highest number of data breaches in 2019 at 644, followed by health care at 525. These attacks can damage reputations, reduce trust, and adversely affect virtually every aspect of a company’s mission. As such, CISOs must constantly monitor servers, firewalls, databases, and networks to respond appropriately to existing or emerging threats and ensure data integrity. This may involve hiring the right people, implementing effective fraud prevention programs, or customizing IT infrastructure to improve resiliency.

In short, whereas CIOs are in charge of information technology as a whole, CISOs are responsible for ensuring data doesn’t fall into the wrong hands and knowing how to recover in the event of worst-case scenarios.

What is a chief medical information officer?

Chief medical information officers (CMIOs) are the intermediary between a hospital’s IT department, health care workers, and the front office. Often referred to as director of medical informatics, CMIOs are physicians, but instead of practicing medicine on a full-time basis, their main responsibility is overseeing a medical facility’s health information technology infrastructure and aligning it with the needs of the hospital so it’s accessible and secure.

Nurses, physicians, surgeons, and specialists turn to electronic medical records to keep track of existing and new patients to better understand their health history and the best course of treatment after office visits. EMRs revolutionized this process and are now the norm for the vast majority of health care facilities in the U.S., according to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.

Because CMIOs are typically licensed physicians, this allows them to practice if they so choose. In fact, polling conducted by Modern Healthcare found 76% of CMIOs saw patients on a part-time basis. However, given the high stakes involved and the fact that EMR systems can encounter problems, the administrative duty of CMIOs is a full-time responsibility.

CMIOs differ from CIOs from a standpoint of the type of information for which they’re responsible, but they both tend to work in collaboration with other health professionals and have similar reporting structures, going to the CEO or COO, Modern Healthcare reported.

At the same time, CIOs may still be employed by health care facilities. In addition, an increasing number of them are women, which is different from previous years. According to analysis conducted by Korn Ferry and reported by the Wall Street Journal, of the top 1,000 companies in the United States by revenue, 18% of CIOs in health care are female.

How much does a chief information officer earn in salary?

Due to the nature of the job and the fact that it’s a leadership position, CIOs are generally well-compensated, usually earning six-figure salaries. According to Glassdoor, the typical CIO makes an annual base pay of $171,752. The amount can range from $103,000 on the low end to $258,000 on the high end.

CIOs employed by Fortune 500 companies can receive salaries that are several times that, from $1 million to upwards of $10 million, when including bonuses and other compensation packages, as reported by CIO.com.

How do you become a chief information officer?

Now that you know a bit more about this role, how it’s changed over the years, and the ways in which it compares with other C-suite positions, you’re probably wondering how to turn your CIO aspirations into reality. The truth is there is no single best course of action. It requires a combination of strategies that blend both education and experience. Generally speaking, it’s best to have an undergraduate degree in computer science or information technology. A bachelor’s degree provides you with the essential management skills and tech knowledge base that are fundamental to prestigious positions such as CIO. Seldom do CIOs go from entry level to the boardroom. Reaching this pinnacle of success is a process, and an undergraduate can help you establish the solid foundation needed to build and progress over the course of your career.

A graduate degree also serves as a stepping stone. Although not technically required, a master’s degree program allows you to refine your understanding of information systems and more effectively distinguish yourself from competitors whose credentials aren’t as well-established. Earning a master’s degree not only helps you achieve more, you may also earn more. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, median weekly earnings for individuals with a graduate degree average roughly $300 more than those with an undergraduate alone.

In addition to rigorous studies, attaining the role of CIO entails plenty of practical knowledge. Much of this is available through graduate programs, including those from the UAB Collat School of Business, but nothing replaces hands-on experience.

Jason James, CIO of Net Health, told The Enterprise Project that aspiring CIOs should be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to demonstrate their “tech chops.”

“Beyond understanding that having a firm grasp on the business is just as important as the technology, aspiring IT leaders must be strong technologists before taking their first CIO job,” James cautioned. “Too often, I see people in other C-suite positions think that they can have a strong business leader with a weak technical background serve as CIO, and simply rely on other tech specialists in the company to fill the knowledge gap.”

James further stated that if current or aspiring CIOs aren’t sufficiently diversified in their understanding of current and up-and-coming technologies, the transition to this position may be difficult.

Time management, organizational proficiency, critical thinking, and problem-solving are  additional soft skills CIOs must possess. Even though technology is designed to make work processes more efficient, it’s not immune to problems. It’s why so many software companies or programs have departments that are devoted to troubleshooting. CIOs need a solid understanding of how intricate technological systems work so they can identify whatever is amiss and then apply the proper fix. CIOs may handle this themselves or delegate duties to their staff. Once again, how hands-on CIOs are in day-to-day activities depends on the business and what each job description entails.

How do you prepare yourself for a CIO interview?

Frequently, those who become CIOs do so on a succession basis, meaning they start at a lower level and work their way up. Yet whether you’re applying for an open position at your current employer or with a competing organization, no one fills the role without first going through an interview. What’s involved in this process tends to vary, but the singular purpose is to determine if applicants possess the proper qualifications, leadership skills, and managerial traits necessary for CIO roles. These recommendations, from CIO.com, can serve as a blueprint for what you can expect and how you should prepare.

Learn as much as possible about the company

It’s never been easier to get to know more details about an organization, given the variety of online resources available and the fact that most companies have a strong web presence. Interviewers need to know that applicants truly desire the open CIO role. This desire can be communicated effectively by doing your research and using these details strategically throughout the interview. Ideal pieces of information to gather include how or when the company was founded, it’s mission statement, and its corporate structure.

Highlight all relevant achievements or accomplishments

Most job openings ― for CIOs or other roles ― list the qualifications that applicants should ideally possess. Try to align those attributes with examples from your background that speak to these core competencies. You may include them in your resume and then elaborate on them during the interview process itself.

Expect lots of questions

Interviews are formal get-to-know-you sessions, but they’re dialed up for C-suite positions mainly because of the responsibilities that the job entails. You never know exactly what your interviewer(s) will ask, but common inquiries include the following, according to CIO.com:

  • How would you best describe your management style?
  • What do you consider to be your biggest strengths?
  • In what areas could you improve?
  • What projects or initiatives have you been involved in your career and were they successful?
  • What salary are you looking for?

Salary-related questions can be tricky, noted Dan Schwabel, author of the self-help book “Promote Yourself: the New Rules for Career Success.” Speaking to CIO.com, Schawbel said it’s best not to be too specific about this issue, because it can set the wrong expectations and may prevent applicants from negotiating pay should an offer be extended. As a general rule, keep numbers to yourself unless you’re specifically asked to do so.

For the most part, CIOs are seeing increases in their pay, at least lately. As noted in KPMG’s 2019 CIO Survey, 47% of respondents acknowledged that their earnings rose from the previous year. An additional 45% of technology leaders said they’re also getting more in terms of bonus pay.

In short, CIO roles are rewarding in more ways than one. You can begin your journey to this milestone on the corporate ladder by participating in the online master’s program at UAB’s Collat School of Business. In as few as 12 months, you can develop the skill sets that CIOs need and employers want. Even if CIO isn’t your primary aim, a management information systems degree can help you establish connections that can lead to opportunities in other positions within the massive world that is information technology.

Apply today and you’ll be on the road to conquering your career aspirations before you know it.

Recommended reading:

4 Reasons to Get a Degree in Management Information Systems Instead of Computer Science

What Do Computer and Information Scientists Do?


The Enterprisers Project: CIO Role 2020

Glassdoor- CIO Salaries KPMG CIO Survey 2019 Deloitte- Trends in CIO Reporting Structure

CIO.com – 9 Ways to Ace the IT Executive Interview

CIO.com –  CIO Salary Stats and Trends for 2020

The Wall Street Journal – More Women Are Making It To The CIO Level Modern Healthcare – What Does a Chief Medical Information Officer Do?

Gallup – Most Americans Already Using Artificial Intelligence Products Identity Theft Resource Center – Annual End-of-Year Data Breach Report