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Tech skills just the start for today’s chief information officers

Once relegated to a back-end role in the office, chief information officers are now increasingly at the forefront of helping to shape company strategy.

According to DNA of a CIO, a recent report by recruiting firm Hays Specialist Recruitment Canada, technical skills are no longer king when it comes to the most senior tech position in management. Instead, having a grasp of the company's vision is the real defining character of success.

"Many people are IT project managers, but the development of business acumen is the real separator," said Rowan O'Grady, president of Hays Canada.

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While the majority of CIOs still come from an IT background, 60 per cent of CIOs surveyed have also worked in some capacity outside of functional IT. Almost 80 per cent said that networking was crucial to attaining their position.

One in five CIOs said that lack of leadership and management experience was the biggest roadblock in getting promoted to the executive level.

"Over all, we were surprised by the level of importance that people were putting on relationships and networking," Mr. O'Grady said. "Practically 70 to 80 per cent of the job is soft skills."

The survey found that 97 per cent of CIOs were happy with their career choice with the majority having entered the IT field because of passion and interest. Almost half ranked leadership and people management as the most important soft skill. A similar proportion said that providing solutions for the company's organizational goals was the most important aspect of the CIO role.

As technology has increasingly come to invade both workplace and home, companies have raced to form business strategies that stay on top of rapidly changing trends.

This has translated into evolving IT departments, with the head role suddenly becoming much less focused on technical skills and much more on the company's business interests, according to David Cefai, CIO for Toronto-based Kinross Gold Corp.

When Mr. Cefai first joined Kinross in 2009, he was working with what he called a very "immature" IT department, one that had been cobbled together and patched after multiple acquisitions. From the beginning, he says, he envisaged IT becoming much more business-oriented than it was.

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Traditional IT employees might ask "'Why should he be my manager when I have a deeper level of IT knowledge than him?' But it's not [the CIO's] job to design the network; it's his job to make sure the network is designed properly," Mr. Cefai said.

While IT departments have typically addressed technical questions, he said the onus is now on IT to make business recommendations, rather than simply waiting for requests.

"When you look at any major change initiative in a company, IT always played a large role in that," he said. "As more and more of technology moves to the cloud, the more the classic back-office role becomes less relevant."

Even for technology companies like Microsoft, the CIO was never traditionally expected to think of IT as a department that contributed to a company's strategy, according to Steve Heck, CIO of Microsoft Canada.

That, however, has changed.

"CIOs need to be change agents," he said. "Technology has no value unless it's being used to deliver tangible business value. You need to have the ability to create vision."

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The CIO must also take the lead on bridging the gap between management and technology. Mr. Heck said it's not management's job to understand IT; rather IT should understand how the company works.

"I strongly encourage any CIO to have a really compelling vision," adding that as technology becomes more pervasive, it will be natural for CIOs to become CEOs.

The report surveyed 100 CIOs across Canada, most of whom resided in Ontario. Of the participants, 92 per cent were male.

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