Hailing from a software engineering background, Sharon Mandell became a chief information officer without quite realizing it.
Mandell co-founded a software company around the 1990s. Coming from a technical background, she wound up running the business and started selecting technologies to help the business grow and scale.
"I didn't think of it as a CIO role, just thought of it as, 'I got to do this to make my business work,'" Mandell said, in an interview with CIO Dive.
Currently the CIO of infrastructure software provider TIBCO Software Inc., Mandell has spent her career as a self-proclaimed "serial" CIO and CTO in the media industry. Each role viewed technology from a different perspective, either building technology to serve the customer as CTO or implementing technology to serve the business as CIO.
Now "I'm a CIO in a company that builds products for people like myself or for CTOs. I get to wear both my product development hat as well as having my front-row seat to how the business operates from end-to-end," Mandell said. It "is the most exciting thing about being a CIO, if you're doing it right."
There is no standard model for the CIO. Cast a net across the technology leaders and no two professional backgrounds look alike. Some hail from business, others are coders by trade. A few have made lateral moves to other companies, while some steadily work their way up in a single organization.
CIOs "have to be better communicators and not just brilliant technologists in this day and age."
Global CIO, Experian
The higher the rank, the more diverse an executive's background (though the bevy of MBAs make for distinctive thread).
CIOs are shaping the next-generation of business success. Their technology prowess, willingness to adapt and vision toward the future is imperative for companies that wish to remain competitive.
A similar vein runs through digital leader businesses, according to Harvey Nash/KPMG 2019 CIO Survey:
The board and the CEO prioritize value creation rather than efficiency
Technology leaders are members of the executive teams and collaborate with business
Focus remains on speed and agility
CIOs lead by influence as lines of business manage more of IT — one in 10 organizations "actively encourage" business-managed IT, according to the Harvey Nash/KPMG. The shift leaves CIOs to focus on big picture strategy and core systems.
"I think, how I see my role evolve, is not just as an infrastructure, operations function supporting the business, but really looking forward and looking to what are customers in the market expecting from us."
VP of corporate strategy, CIO at Laserfiche
The "expectation and ask for technology leaders continues to elevate," said Barry Libenson, global chief information officer at consumer credit reporting company Experian, in an interview with CIO Dive. CIOs "have to be better communicators and not just brilliant technologists in this day and age."
The evolution of the CIO role has also transformed where CIOs fit in product discussions.
"I think, how I see my role evolve, is not just as an infrastructure, operations function supporting the business, but really looking forward and looking to what are customers in the market expecting from us," said Thomas Phelps, VP of corporate strategy and CIO at enterprise content management company Laserfiche, in an interview with CIO Dive.
An increasingly important aspect for CIOs is connecting with customers, understanding their issues and partnering with the product management team to innovate and support their needs, he said.
Change over time
With an average tenure of 4.3 years, CIOs moving from one company to the next can find opportunities to expand their influence. Those who remain with their organization see change over time as they strategize the role of digital technology.
The nature of the CIO role can change depending on a company's age, scale, industry and business-specific needs at any given time, according to Mandell.
"CIO's aren't pure technologists," she said. "When you're a CIO, the role is to use technology to deliver value to the business and the best technology is sometimes oversized for the scale of the business problem you're trying to solve."
Success requires good technology judgments and thinking through long-term implementation. It's a different calling than past roles.
"When you're a CIO, the role is to use technology to deliver value to the business and the best technology is sometimes oversized for the scale of the business problem you're trying to solve."
CIO, TIBCO Software Inc.
Twenty years ago, the CIO was responsible for delivering electronic mail and keeping laptops and spreadsheets running, according to Libenson. Now, CIOs have a seat at the table and are helping to drive the business forward.
"I will be the first one to sort of acknowledge that my role, in my opinion, was very tactical and not strategic," he said. "I think that's the way most CIOs around 2000 kind of started cutting their teeth. 'Can you make sure we get through Y2K because the sky is going to fall when the clock turns?'"
Now, at Experian, Libenson has a major seat at the table and serves as a member of the executive leadership team, involved in product decisions and strategic direction. His team is responsible for building and maintaining core platforms heavily used by the business.
Technology is critical at Experian, as it is for businesses in every sector. Navigating demands requires an adaptive executive willing to work beyond the bounds of a traditionally technology-centric role.
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify comments from Thomas Phelps.