//Chief Information Officer Career Path: How to Become a CIO

Chief Information Officer Career Path:
How to Become a CIO

The path to becoming CIO is long, challenging and competitive—but for IT professionals with the drive and determination to reach the top, the journey to the top of the career ladder is a feat worth pursuing. Even if you don’t breathe the rarified air of the C-suite, having your sights set on becoming a CIO will certainly help you grow in your career and achieve more senior-level positions over time.

Know the Role of the CIO

If you want to reach the C-suite, the first step is to understand what’s expected of the people who are already there. In other words, what does a CIO actually do? Being able to answer this question early in your IT career will help you focus on developing the knowledge, skills and abilities that will help you climb the IT career ladder all the way to the top.


For starters, this definition of the CIO role from Gartner might be helpful: “The Chief Information Officer oversees the people, processes and technologies within a company’s IT organization to ensure they deliver outcomes that support the goals of the business.” For help unpacking this, let’s turn to The DNA of the CIO.

Drawing on a survey of more than 300 senior IT professionals from around the world, as well as in-depth interviews with a further 25 CIOs, The DNA of the CIO provides a breadth of insights into the qualities, characteristics and capabilities of C-level IT leaders. For example, the report outlines core skills across three primary areas of the CIO position: execution, enablement and development.

Job Focus Core Skills
Execution – Controlling the impact of IT spend on the organization and ensuring the IT and security needs are up and running.
  • Excellent budget planning and allocation skills
  • Being able to track costs incurred related to IT or the IT function
  • Maintaining transparent cost monitoring and reporting
  • Deliver IT services and security at agreed service levels without interruptions
  • Identifying, communicating and resolving IT and security risks and information effectively
Enablement – Providing insights to support business decisions and enhancing business processes by being an active business partner.
  • Maintaining information architectures in order to be able to access the right data at the right speed
  • Communicating the IT implications of proposals
  • Communicating IT and risk issues to C-suite, colleagues and stakeholders
  • Continuously delivering the latest and most innovative IT services to the organization
  • Developing strategic IT plans to achieve organization’s goals
Development – Preparing and developing the organization for change and shaping the future of the business with the right technology.
  • Proactively recommending IT transformations in order to strengthen and maintain competitive advantage
  • Overseeing delivery of planned transformations/major change initiatives in the IT function
  • Utilizing IT as the enabler for innovative business models
  • Anticipating future impact of latest technology trends on IT function and the organization
  • Turning strategic plans into operational plans and targets
Source: EY, The DNA of the CIO

Be Patient on Your Way to the Top

If you’re just starting out in your IT career or only have a few years of experience, anticipate a long journey to the C-suite. Reaching the top of the IT career ladder takes time. Hays, a leading global specialist recruitment firm, surveyed more than 100 IT leaders from Director level to CIO/CTO or above about their education, background, qualifications and experience. As part of the survey, respondents were asked how long it took them to achieve the CIO/CTO role. According to the results, more than half of the respondents (57%) said it took between 10 and 20 years to reach their current senior IT position.


As you gain experience and progress in your career, think about how you can move up within an organization instead of how you can move on to bigger and better things. Deloitte synthesized data from over 100 CIO transitions and conducted interviews with more than 600 key stakeholders and found that overall, internal candidates were twice as likely (64%) to be selected for the CIO role compared with external candidates (36%). In other words, you may have a better chance of becoming a CIO within your own organization instead of being brought in as the senior IT decision-maker somewhere else.

A quick side note: be on the lookout for mentors throughout your career. According to the Hays CIO study, 85% of CIOs have had a mentor and 64% say they’re not sure they could have reached their current role without the help of their mentor.

% of CIOs that have had a mentor: 85
% that say they're not sure they would be in their current position without a mentor: 64

Develop the Soft Skills CIOs Need

Hays asked IT leaders what percentage of their time was spent developing soft skills versus technical skills throughout their career. According to the responses, IT leaders focus on soft skills as they progress to more senior roles. This isn’t surprising, considering the nature of the CIO role and the skills required to succeed. You obviously want to become a technical expert first, but as you progress in your career and transition to more strategic and communication-focused positions, the focus should be on developing the personality traits and interpersonal skills of effective leaders. In fact, when asked to identify skills that are crucial for their role, 81% of CIOs cited leadership and 79% named communication and influencing skills, both scores well ahead of IT know-how. Project management and change management skills were also crucial for about three-quarters (74%) of CIOs.

Soft Skills vs Technical Skills Along the CIO Career Ladder

Junior to Mid-Level

Soft Skills: 21
Technical Skills: 79

Mid-Level to Management

Soft Skills: 36
Technical Skills: 36

Management to Senior Management

Soft Skills: 59
Technical Skills: 41

Senior Management to Director Level

Soft Skills: 70
Technical Skills: 30

Director Level to Executive (C-Suite)

Soft Skills: 80
Technical Skills: 20

Validate Your IT Knowledge and Experience

According to the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), a leading provider of vendor-neutral IT certifications and educational programs, “IT certified individuals are more likely to be promoted than those without IT certifications.” Not sure where to start, or which certification to get next? The CompTIA IT Certification Roadmap can make navigating the world of certifications a little easier. You can use the roadmap to see which certifications align with your intended career path. If you intend to become a CIO or CTO, you may want to focus on certifications in IT management and strategy:

Earn a Master’s Degree

If you want to take the next step in your career, you may want to consider taking the next step in your education first. According to the Hays CIO survey, 50% of respondents have a master’s degree or higher. Asked about their highest level of education, CIO survey respondents said:

Undergraduate degree: 35
Master's Degree: 42
Post-graduate certification/diploma: 6
PHD: 2

Of course, a master’s degree is no guarantee of career advancement, but it’s definitely something to consider if you want to become an IT leader. A Master's of Business Administration (MBA) can help you gain a better understanding of the business management functions you may be responsible for as a CIO. You can also consider a master's degree in computer science, computer engineering or cybersecurity. A computer-focused master's degree can teach you how to incorporate emerging technologies into new system designs, among other skills you will need as a CIO.

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