Are the best CIOs from non-tech background?

While the answer to this question is yes and no, the future undoubtedly seeks a CIO who can be a game changer for the enterprise.

The Verdict

The functioning of a CIO is changing fast and today we are witnessing a lot of CIOs who are from a non-tech background. Whereas, it is important to have technological acumen, today it has become even more important to understand business and make the IT department a profit centre in your organisation.

There are two school of thoughts that exist, one that thinks a CIO can be truly successful if he has got a technical background. But off late we are witnessing CIOs becoming successful even without a technical background and the key to their success is their business acumen. There is no doubt that knowing technology is a per-requisite to become a CIO, but with enterprises outsourcing their technology infrastructure, a CIOs prime job now is to make IT department as a profit centre.

We at CIO&Leader went and spoke to some of the top management of different organisations to find out what do they think about this topic. According to Ambarish Gupta, CTO and Co-Founder, Knowlarity Communications, “I believe IT experience is necessary to succeed in the role of CIO. A non-tech background may work in a very big organisation where CIO’s role is limited to governance and compliance and where the CIO can count on IT department for taking business-savvy decisions and where CEO does not demand immediate answers. This does not mean that CIO has to be alpha tech because nine times out of ten he won’t be configuring systems but even then it is necessary to have the basics right to fully understand the costs, limitations and possibilities of IT systems. A top CIO will have the right mix of business acumen plus understanding of IT systems.”

Getting the right combination

Gupta feels that a CIO is a business executive who drives governance, compliance, data security and business innovation in his organisation. A mix of tech and non-tech background will allow them to sit at two tables: 1) Executive table – the place where business decisions are made and 2) IT table – the place where IT directors discuss implementation table. In order to get his way at the executive table the CIO has to put his ideas across in a non tech way. They also need to think strategic away from tactical IT thinking. This calls for exposure across multiple organisation job roles.

There are others though, who feel that a CIO can be equally successful with a non tech background. Rajiv Kumar, CEO & Founder, Manusis Technologies said, “I think the background does not matter. What matters is the person's analysing skills. He does not need to be hands-on with the technology but if he has a good team and can quick do a competitive analysis of prevalent technologies on the basis of his or his team's research then he will definitely succeed.”

Kumar adds, “I don't think the tech background will be considered as the negative attribute for the position of CIO. A CIO needs to have deep understandings of both the technology and the business. Balancing the two sides is essential as it ensures utmost productivity for the enterprise, especially a large and complex one, without any relevant IT experience. Moreover, CIOs in this position may find themselves struggling to find the right perspective to inspire and lead IT managers, analysts, and developers.”

Being a Analytical CIO

As long a CIO can analyse and make smart decisions based on his analysis. A non-technical CIO can surround himself with a capable team who can support him in all technical matters. It’s the abil- ity to lead that’s really needed, whereby the issue of technical capabilities becomes secondary. After all, there are some successful business CIOs without technical background.

Yogesh Agarwal, President, Applane says, “The competency of CIOs can be judged more from how they fulfill their responsibilities than what background they comes from. There would be some elements concerning leadership and ability to drive change that do not necessarily require a a decidedly tech or non-tech background. I feel tech and non-tech skills are equally important and have not come across many such situations where the CIO is required to have a non-tech background.”

He adds, “For a non-tech background CIO, it is of course a greater challenge as the responsibilities of a CIO require him to understand technologies he is dealing with in good detail. It may not require great technical expertise but some technical aptitude is indispensable for a CIO to do his job judiciously.” Gupta also feels that for a non-tech background person, it is difficult to justify in the position of a CIO. “Without a tech background it is impossible to get the backing of the IT department. Charisma and business acumen is not enough to inspire confidence in the IT department who want to be led by one of their own – someone who understands the intricacies of their daily work and appreciates the work put in everyday to keep the lights on. A CIO with not tech background will not bring his perspective to the table as he will be dependent on his staff to sniff out poorly designed plans or diagnose problems,” adds Gupta.

Leadership cannot be the only attribute that can make a person a CIO. There are other necessary skill-sets which are a must for this profession. According to Sharat Airani, CTO, Intellinet Datasys, “Every profession has different skill sets and necessary basic background knowledge. If it is only a leadership that can make a person a CIO, then anyone can lead Finance, HR, etc.” Today's CIO is more focused on delivering the best to the business. Technology alone is not the single vision. Non technical CIOs will have to struggle in continuous learning process from a constantly evolving technology to understand and also become non-dependent of vendors.

Airani vouches for the need of tech-background CIO and gives us an example. “To cite an example how non-technical leader is, here we go. Assume there is a need of a server and storage. If the CIO is unaware and just follows the vendor he will ultimately have to compromise on a lot of issues like budget or performance issues. This will mean that within a few days, he might have to add more solutions to keep the network secure in this pattern he is losing money for the company. We need a CIO who has sound technical knowledge and has the ability to not only solve the problem but also take care of the long-tern benefit of the organisation.”


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