What does a CIO actually do? Observations from a week shadowing a CIO

I’ve recently had the opportunity to shadow the Chief Information Officer (CIO) of a large UK company and he had the kindness to let me sit into a variety of meetings and interview him and some of his reporting staff. I took off my “VMware hat” for a few days and was a fly on the wall during most meetings, listening and taking a large quantity of notes.

[Sneaky good perk of working for VMware: something called “Take2” where we get the opportunity to “take 2” weeks and do something new, including: gain exposure to our customers, research and innovate, or spend time with another product/service/team. That’s how I justified taking the time out to shadow the CIO]

It was actually my last pre-COVID customer meeting and it also happened to be the first customer meeting I went to on a bus:

I’ve been curious about the role of CIO for years: when you work for an IT vendor like VMware or Cisco, he/she has the final say on whether to adopt and purchase your product. But the vast majority of us working for vendors have never been a CIO or a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and it’s hard to convince these individuals to buy your products if you don’t know what they do or how they think.

I will share in this post some of my observations from the few days I spent shadowing the CIO. I’ve removed names and any sensitive information that I heard over the course of my time there.

I remember reading a great article 7-8 years ago on this very question (“What Does a CIO Actually Do?”) and I’ve kept some notes from that article which I’m using parsimoniously throughout this post.

While every CIO will have different responsibilities, scope and budget, I will focus on what the CIO I shadowed did over the course of my few days with him and his team.

So what does a CIO actually do?

A CIO is a Manager of People

This might go without saying but the CIO is at the top of the I.T. division of a company and would typically have different divisions reporting up to him/her:

  • I.T. Infrastructure, including Networking, Storage and Compute
  • End User Desktops and Mobile Devices
  • Business Applications
  • Cloud Center of Excellence
  • Office of the CTO and/or Enterprise Architecture Team
  • Security, Compliance and Data Security
  • Service Delivery and Operations
  • IT Programme Office

In my particular context, the CIO was essentially in charge of all the above – which is a massive scope! So he had to delegate and rely on his Chief Technology Office (CTO), Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), Service Delivery Director, etc…

I sat in meetings with the CIO and his direct reports while they discussed budgets, major issues and project updates.

What surprised me in one of the conversations is how the CIO and his direct team had to build a succession plan. It became even more relevant as COVID was starting to affect the business (more on this later) but in general, the Management Team already had an idea of who could step up if anyone of them left the business or was indisposed.

I am not a particular fan of business quotes but the VMware COO Sanjay Poonen gave one at an internal VMware event a few years ago that stuck with me: “There is no success without a successor” – I think this quote was originally from Peter Drucker.

A CIO is a Business Expert

This requirement might not be obvious but it became clear to me following the CIO around that he/she has to have an extreme good grasp of not just the business but the overall industry and its trends: one of the tasks the CIO had to do was to build a Digital Strategy document alongside the Commercial Director. I also noticed how the CIO and his team were acutely aware of the competition and the share price swings of their main competitors.

A CIO is a Communicator

The CIO I shadowed gives a ‘Stand-up’ every 2 weeks where he physically stands up in front of his entire staff and gives an update of the business and offer staff the opportunity to ask questions. The staff told me this was very helpful for them. In addition, the CIO and his direct team sends out a light-hearted weekly newsletter to give an update on projects and initiatives.

A CIO is a Financial Manager

The CIO is often responsible for a large IT budget and has to approve investments and various projects and he/she would have request the annual budget from a Financial Director/CFO and justify the value from major IT programmes. The CIO I shadowed actually has quarterly meetings with the CFO and has to present to the Board on a regular basis.

A CIO often has to walk a fine line between cutting costs from his OPEX/CAPEX budget while at the same time keeping the lights on (see next section) and innovating.

If you ever want to become a CIO, you need strong business acumen and financial skills – probably more important than being a technology expert.

While I was shadowing him, the CIO also had to deal with the COVID implications as we were all beginning to understand its overall impact. The CIO and his team had to contemplate what it would mean for the overall business, the IT budget and whether to prioritize or drop projects.

A CIO is an Operational Leader

The CIO is ultimately responsible for the management of the IT infrastructure and Operations. He/she might not be involved in approving every change or in every issue but he/she needs to be aware of high-risk/high-impact changes and major escalations.

The CIO I shadowed trusted his Service Director and knew she would escalate major issues if/when they would appear. Being able to hire good people and to delegate are obvious qualities required for the job.

The CIO I shadowed came from a Service Delivery & Operations background – I think that’s probably common.

A CIO is a Mediator

Going back to one of the earlier points: as the CIO is a leader of people, he/she has to deal with disputes and disagreements. He/she often has to mediate and show the right mix of empathy and firmness to deal with personal issues. This is a part of the role I do not envy.

A CIO is a Crisis Manager

As the business was coming to grasps with the impact of COVID-19, the CIO had to be engaged and be leading the Crisis Management Team put in place to assess the consequences of the situation.

By now, you can see how being a CIO requires a number of qualities and attributes: empathy, authority, ability to delegate, calm, assurance, strong communicator and many more.

A CIO is a Digital Leader

At VMware, we probably tend to overuse the “Digital Transformation” term (it refers to how our customers are leveraging IT and technology to achieve a variety of business goals and provide new services for their employees and customers) but I witnessed many digital transformation initiatives, with various degrees of disruption:

  • Large-scale project across all remote sites to modernize asset management: where users would manage inventory and stock through a new modern app instead of an outdated interface
  • Build new iOS/Android apps to provide a better customer and employee experience
  • Provide different ways to purchase their products and services (for example, contactless payments)

Projects were either driven by infrastructure requirements (refresh obsolete hardware, upgrade a wide-area network or a wireless network, migrate to the Cloud), by business operations or by customer needs.

A CIO is a Project Leader

A CIO has to deliver new capabilities into the business and get projects delivered. He gets update from the IT Programme office on the major IT initiatives, such as the one described in the previous section.

While reviewing a project that had missed several deadlines, I could see the CIO getting frustrated with the lack of progress and he had to admonish the project manager.

It was only a mild reproach but once the meeting ended, he asked me: “Was I too harsh?“. He genuinely worried about it…but he also knew that the particular recipient of it could handle the criticism and would take it onboard. But this episode taught me that…

A CIO is a Human Being after all

A CIO might have a fancy title, a huge budget and many people reporting to him/her; it doesn’t prevent him/her from having feelings, regrets and doubts.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and would recommend it to anyone. I am thankful of the CIO, his manager and the team for letting me spend time with them.

Thanks for reading.


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