The Path to Becoming a CIO

Boston City


Recently, I was able to receive feedback from three university Chief Information Officers (CIO) about their career paths to becoming an academic CIO.  Each provided insights on what they would suggest to the rising generation of future CIOs. Below I’ve included some of their most valuable advice:

Path to Becoming a CIO

The path to becoming a CIO will be different for most CIOs, especially in academics. No test is given, no exact schooling is requested, and no prescribed personality type is required for the position of a CIO. Having asked Gordon Wishon, the CIO of Arizona State University, what his path was to becoming CIO, his response was bold, direct, and inspirational. He said the following:

“I believe that the leadership training was very valuable, but certainly not solely responsible for advancing as I did in my career. I think that the path first begins by making oneself as valuable as possible as an individual contributor, always supporting the objectives of the leader of the team you’re a part of, and accepting any challenge that comes along.”

Below, I have extracted three main points from Wishon’s response about his path to becoming an academic CIO:

  1. “Making oneself as valuable as possible”
  2. “Always supporting the objectives of your leaders”
  3. “Accepting any challenge that comes along”

As the son of a CIO, I’ve previously asked my dad advice on how he was able to arrive at his current position at a large credit union. The advice he gave was very consistent with the advice Wishon gave in his three main points listed above. My dad said it is essential to do the absolute best you can in your current position wherever your job is, so you can start being trained on how to be a successful CIO.

A Chance for Change

If you were given a chance to redo the path that you’ve taken, what would you change? Looking at the past can generate great insight, especially to the rising generation. Theresa Rowe of Oakland University gave an incredible response on what she would change if she could do her journey to CIO again. Her response was the following:

“Seek projects and jobs that allow you to have a real 10 years of experience over 10 years, NOT one year of experience 10 times. Be willing to move to seek out the opportunities that provide new and varied experiences. Learn everything you can about contracts, vendor management, and software licensing. As a leader, you spend a lot of time on those items. Also, learn all you can about facilities and data centers, and how IT space is managed. I never expected to spend so much time on contracts, licenses, and space management.”

The advice she gave to have a real 10 year of experience is key. Doing the same job over and over for years will only make your skills and talents stale. Widening your project range, getting outside of your comfort zone, and accomplishing hard things will help you gain greater experience and avoid becoming stale.

Advice to the Upcoming Generation

Lastly, the following career advice to aspiring CIO’s was given by Chris Alan McCoy of the University of Arkansas. McCoy provided a very helpful and detailed response on specific things that can be done to help groom yourself for such a leadership position.

  1. Get to know yourself really, really well. Know your strengths. Know your passions. Know your weaknesses. If you aren’t sure, do everything you can to learn about yourself first. You MUST work towards your strengths and HIRE a team around you to do your weaknesses. You MUST realize that a weakness isn’t a bad thing, but not knowing your weaknesses is.
  2. Take chances early. If you want to get noticed, you have to have exposure.
    1. Write papers.
    2. Do presentations.
    3. Develop something cool like a software.
  3. Find people who are successful and ask them about their success.
  4. Find a mentor or two and follow their advice.
  5. Get appropriate education as early as possible.
  6. Spend no more than 5 years in a single position.
  7. Subscribe to position announcements for one or two levels up from your level. Apply for everything that comes across your desk – the worst that can happen is that you are offered a job.
  8. Be known for something. Exploit that.
  9. Join. Join your professional groups. Join committees, workgroups, organizations that align with your profession.
  10. Always think upward – avoid doing things that link you to a lower level.
  11. Find others who are successful and seek their help in moving up.
  12. Do what successful people tell you to do – they made it somehow, so they must know.”


After reaching out to these exemplary leaders there is much we can learn. As evident from these CIO’s, there is no single path to becoming a great leader. It is important to start where you are today and diversify your skill set. Do everything you can now to have valuable experiences which will shape your career path in the future.  It is never too late to start on the path of your dream career.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.