Aspiring CIOs: Your technology chops still matter

Successful CIOs understand the business. But you'd better be a strong technologist before taking your first CIO job
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[Editor's note: As part of our ongoing series in which IT leaders offer advice to the next generation of CIOs, Jason James, CIO of Optima Healthcare Solutions, shares why he thinks CIOs should be technologists first.]

My first CIO job:

I’m technically in my first CIO job at Optima Healthcare Solutions, but I have been an acting CIO at the companies I’ve worked with for over a decade. 

I took my first effective CIO job back in 2006 at Servigistics, a provider of service lifecycle management software that was acquired by PTC. When I was there, I started as a network engineer and grew my career to become vice president of global IT. As VP of global IT, I was responsible for leading a global IT team and supporting our SaaS platform that served Fortune 1000 companies.

Prior experience:

I’ve led IT operations for fast-growth technology companies for over 20 years. After Servigistics, I served as the VP of global IT infrastructure support and operations for IT service management company PRGX. My last job prior to joining Optima was VP of IT operations for internet service provider EarthLink. There, I led IT operations and infrastructure, including data centers and network-related hardware.

"From the age of 15, I was laying out networks and doing PC upgrades."

Aside from these professional roles, my entrepreneurial drive started at a much earlier age. From the age of 15, I was laying out networks and doing PC upgrades. And during college, I worked for a value-added reseller (VAR) and ended up buying the company. We did about $400,000 sales by the time I was 19. These entrepreneurial experiences have greatly influenced my career growth over the years, especially in terms of how I view what it takes to understand the needs of the business, and drive innovation and success as an IT leader.

What my first CIO job taught me:

I learned very quickly that as CIO, a solid tech background will only get you so far. You also have to understand the business. Over the last 20 years, IT has grown from a back office, technical support position to a business enabler. In order to be a successful CIO, you must understand the business needs of your clients — both internal and external. 

My advice for aspiring CIOs:

Beyond understanding that having a firm grasp on the business is just as important as the technology, aspiring IT leaders must be strong technologists before taking their first CIO job. Too often, I see people in other C-Suite positions think that they can have a strong business leader with a weak technical background serve as CIO, and simply rely on other tech specialists in the company to fill the knowledge gap.  

If the CIO doesn’t have a strong grasp of technology – from IT automation to DevOps to cloud technologies – that person will ultimately struggle in the role. While it may be difficult to learn the business, it is exponentially harder to understand the technology needed to empower and transform the business.  

Bonus tip – Don't get comfortable:

It’s important to keep in mind that the rate of technology change is ever-accelerating – and you can never sit back in your job when it comes to the role of CIO. Technologies that work well for the business this year might hold you back the next. As a CIO, you have to constantly evaluate how new technology could help give your company a business advantage, even if your current solutions are serving you well today. 

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Jason James is CIO of Net Health. He has led IT operations for fast-growth technology companies for over twenty years.