Is The CIO Necessary?

The purpose of a company is to make money and to make that money while somehow imparting a positive effect to its customers. Can IT enable the business without a clearly laid out Vision? Without that sense of purpose, doesn't IT typically make a mosh of things?

Over the years, off and on, I’ve had various debates with colleagues and peers about the nature of IT and business. One of the most interesting ones in recent memory revolves around the nature of the CIO. To what degree is the Chief Information Officer necessary if a company has an already overflowing C-Suite? I think my interlocutors would agree that a CIO in general is an important part of modern, technology enabled businesses. I think real question is slightly different. To what degree is the CIO important to the IT organization especially if there are already a plethora of CTOs, VPs, et al?

One of my favorite descriptions of the role of the CIO vs the role of the CTO comes from Phil Windley. Granted I was 12 when I read it, but I think it is still fairly valid:


“First let me talk about what I think they have in common:

  • In both jobs, a key role is helping technologists understand what the business needs and helping the business understand what the technology can do for them.
  • Both roles require a strong technologist with a strong grasp of business (kind of a corollary to the last point, but slightly different).
  • Both should be strategic thinkers.
  • Both should be excellent leaders.

Now for their differences:

  • I see a CTO as primarily focused on the top line while the CIO is primarily focused on the bottom line.  There’s some cross over, but I think this is a valid distinction.
  • A CTO is primarily concerned with external products and customers while a CIO is primarily concerned with running the business (internal products and customers).
  • In an ideal world, the CTO runs the product development organization while the CIO runs the IT organization.
  • If you have to choose, being a strong technologist is more important for the CTO, while being a good manager is more important for the CIO.
  • A CIO has to be operational and understand how to build repeatable processes, reliable systems, and the organization to run them.  A CTO doesn’t necessarily have to have these skill if backed up by a strong operational person in the role of CIO.”


This to me still holds true today, even as business and technology have changed over the years.

But I would add one critical point that is overlooked and for which my fellow technologists seem to have either complete contempt or total ignorance. The CIO has a central role in establishing what I call the “Vision” for what IT should be doing. I put “Vision” in quotes because I don’t want to imply a strict, doctrinal enterprise architecture/ IT strategy / consultantese version of the word. I merely mean to suggest that without an overriding definition of the purpose of IT, and if left to its own devices, myriad wasteful things can occur at the hands of an otherwise well-intentioned technology organization.

If the purpose of a company is to make money and to make that money while somehow imparting a positive effect to its customers, how does IT help make that happen? Can IT enable the business without a clearly laid out “Vision” for which some set of goals and objectives can be established? Without that sense of purpose, doesn’t IT typically make a mosh of things? After all, IT doesn’t exist for the purpose of itself. It isn’t an end unto itself. It exists to help the company make as much money as possible with the lowest overhead possible while delivering the best service possible to the constellation of consumers. If there is no set of directives, no overarching view of how that should be achieved, how can anything possibly go right?

And if that “Vision” is necessary for the reasons I stated, who could possibly enunciate it other than a person who understands the outward business of the enterprise and for whom the bottom line is paramount? If we need a capacity to understand human behavior and harness it to drive maximum value to our customers (both internal and external), who better to craft that than a person who is chiefly skilled in business and management?

But you might stop here and say, aha! I’ve got you! The CIO is a technical expert and they aren’t typically skilled in management! As Dwight Shrute might say: FALSE. The CIO is, and must be, attuned to the big picture aspect of technology within the context of the business. The successful ones are woven into the fabric of the business and must intuitively understand how the technology they are responsible for enables that business. They are business operatives, managers of technical capabilities that enable business capabilities, first and foremost.

I come down on the side of, yes Virginia, there IS a need for the Chief Information Officer. If for no other reason, he is needed to give shape to the purpose of the technology organization (along with his CTOs). If he doesn’t, the natural tendencies of technologists in a leadership vacuum will take over. Sadly there are way too many examples of that to mention.