Wednesday, April 23, 2014

CIO as ‘Polyglot”: Shall CIOs need to be both Leader & Coder?

Either as a leader or a coder, dedication &  “continuing learning” are important regardless of one’s field.

  Today’s CIOs are indeed ‘polyglot’, not only some of them are multi-linguistic to understand different cultures via cognitive connection, but also most of them have to understand multiple business dialects such as business, IT and architecture in order to act as a business ‘translator’ to mind the gap; further, the IT ranked CIOs may also be good at coding, to communicate with machine via multiple computer languages. The interesting debate upon IT leadership would be: Shall CIOs need to be both leader and coder? Or how to make CIOs more effective?

CIOs bridges the gap between these two domains - business and technology. It is a challenging thing to achieve but fundamental to becoming a truly effective CIO. IT strategy decisions cannot and should not be made without a solid understanding of the technology behind them. This doesn't have to be at the maximum level of detail, but enough to understand what's important and how to achieve it. Indeed, leaders and coders may share some ‘common mindsets’ such as analytical thinking and creative thinking; but a leader needs to be a specialized generalist, have more strategic mindset to oversight big picture of business ; while a coder is more as a technology specialist, needs to be more focused on design thinking and technical details. It is very useful for a CIO to have had some experience of writing code or other technology areas for that matter as part of their earlier career. However, as the C-level executive, the CIO's decisions are more about strategy, risk, vendor partnership, internal relationships, hiring quality staff, coping with finance and resource challenges, etc.

Critical thinking and problem-Solving skill are more important for leaders; that a CIO is willing to and will take whatever legally permits, creatively and relentlessly to achieve the success. Being able to write code is a useful skill; doing it at CIO level is not a strategic task, though. Being able to understand new technologies quickly and make good choices about which ones to adopt or even investigate is probably more important for a CIO. There is also the danger that too many hands-on removes the CIO from thinking about the big picture and no one else is mandated to do that. So every leader in any position should understand that which they should be managing. And it is especially useful if at some point in their career they had hands-on experience in key aspects of what they now oversee. A CIO benefits enormously from having a tangible feel for the work that staff does - not just the outcomes. Otherwise, he/she cannot appreciate their challenge.

It's about having the right blend of leadership skills, business knowledge and technical knowledge (not necessarily hands-on) that makes the right CIO. Technical knowledge such as leadership styles are just one of the tools in your toolbox, and you need to keep them all sharp to work effectively. How you sharpen your tools is a personal choice. It is about leadership and hands-on. Some CIO's know how to lead, but don't know how to code. Some coders know how to code, but don't know how to lead. Some ideal hands-on leaders know not only how to lead but also how to code. This is an issue of a mix of leadership and hands-on approach. A mix of macro and micro perspective.

CIOs must understand the business and the role IT plays in it, knowing IT capabilities well helps him/her to better perform the job. Previous experience in technical activities helps him/her to drive informed actions and have synergy with the team. And maintaining an interest in technology (including what's happening in software development) and listening to those with deeper knowledge are far more important and are sometimes lacking in CIOs. However, the role of CIO is very different to a software developer. Critical thinking skills are far more important than deep technical expertise, especially in top leadership roles. Successfully climbing the corporate ladder requires a technologist to understand that they need to gain business skills, quantification of benefits, ROI among other factors...

 In an IT leadership role, you’d better understand technology to some degree. Being in IT (regardless of the role) you make a commitment to always be learning the new. Understanding technology and where it’s going will allow the CIO to look into the future and how it can be used to propel a company forward. Writing code may not be possible for a CIO in the long run due to wide nature of her/his job. However, She/he sure has to learn the technology and leadership as well. Most effective CIOs know how IT works, have a broad business knowledge and know how to apply IT effectively. Therefore, they need a lot of IT knowledge to determine what works and what not, and how to make things work without knowing all details. Given a specific CIO position and its circumstances, the CIO must know what they are signing up for: When accepting a role, the real skill is to know to ground their choice in their ethical stand. Being able to shift between strategic leadership and tactical management. Leaders can capture the insight from their previous coding experience, though. Both leadership and code are complex by nature, whereas IT leadership needs to translate business strategies into IT project portfolio and leverage information technology to solve business challenges; and coding teaches the purest essence of information technology, to translate real-world problems and opportunities into cohesive, logical information systems and solutions. IT leaders should learn to communicate briefly like assembly language; encapsulate the vision, take the inheritance of leadership quintessential and practice multi-threading management disciplines, like object-oriented language; or learn from extreme programming by not being extreme, but being more balanced, interactive and agile.   

Either as a leader or a coder, “continuing education” is important regardless of one’s field. For a CIO, technical competence becomes more about how technology impacts the organization than about the mechanics of how it works. Hire competent people to take care of that, hold them accountable for making good decisions, and stay on top of the overall performance of your organization. Never forget that when the leader gets lost in the details, no one is driving the ship. Ensure that the business stays ahead of the curve-business environment today is extremely dynamic. Technology brings enormous advantages to the table! However, there is a gap between capability and harnessing that capability for business use. The CIO has to play this role and channelizes the advantages to ensure that the organization stays relevant. This is probably the most difficult task -one needs to balance the technological investments made, the risk associated with new technology adoption. It is more important for IT leaders to persuade their fellow leaders, partners or workers to achieve the business vision via polyglot's empathy, with an in-depth understanding of IT.


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