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How the CIOs of 4 Fortune 500 companies got their jobs

Bruce Harpham | Oct. 14, 2015
CIOs of Microsoft, Verizon, AT&T and United Technologies share how they reached the CIO office. Your mission: Study their experience and learn how to follow in their footsteps.

Many professionals desire a simple career roadmap that will explain each and every step. While it might be possible to develop that kind of a flowchart for some roles, such as making the move from a developer to a manager, DuBois and Davis’s experience shows there are several routes to the CIO’s chair. In fact, none of the CIOs interviewed for this article took a linear path up the proverbial corporate ladder.

Developing the CIO mindset

Twenty years ago, technology professionals and leaders often had a reactive perspective on their work. They would build technology based on requests from customers and business units. Complaints about limited resources and unreasonable expectations from business partners reigned supreme. That attitude is no longer relevant, especially when it comes to aspiring CIOs and technology executives.

att thaddeus arroyo
Former AT&T CIO Thaddeus Arroyo.

“When I started as a CIO, I thought of the role as focused on infrastructure,” says Thaddeus Arroyo who served as CIO of AT&T for 2007-2014. “Over time, my view of the CIO role has changed. It is now much more important to bring ideas and innovation to the table,” Arroyo says. Maintaining IT infrastructure remains important. Yet, it is no longer enough to ensure success. Making strategic contributions to products and customers has become the way to stand out as a CIO.

“In the early 2000s, I played a key role in implementing a roll-over feature at Cingular,” says Arroyo. A roll-over feature allows a cellular customer to take unused minutes and data from a given month and carry it to the next month. “This was a great project to improve customer service and it involved IT, marketing and the product group,” says Arroyo. Leading an effort to significantly improve a product or service used by the company’s customer is an excellent way for the CIO to make a strategic contribution.

The value of a growth environment

Climbing the corporate ladder is a challenging task. Several of the CIOs interviewed mentioned the importance of supportive managers and corporate culture in growing their skills. “I came into the organization in a technical role. Over time, I was encouraged to take on additional responsibilities,” says United Technologies’ Davis. “It’s easy to become comfortable in a role that you know how to do well – moving to new roles is a key way to continue your growth.”

Key competences for CIO success

Achieving success as a CIO requires excellence in several skills. In the interviews for this story, these five trends emerged as themes:

  • Broad knowledge of the business. Nancy Davis, CIO at United Technologies, had the expertise of working at several business units prior to her appointment as CIO. Becoming an executive at a large organization requires a breadth of experience. After all, if you are unable to understand the products and problems of the various lines of business, how can you enable their success?
  • Stay curious about the organization. “Nurturing your curiosity about the organization is a key skill for CIOs,” according to Thaddeus Arroyo, former CIO of AT&T. You can show your curiosity by visiting other parts of the company, working on cross-company projects and learning about new projects.
  • Information security. Prior to his appointment as Microsoft’s CIO, Jim DuBois served as CISO. That experience and knowledge will become more important as more business activities are completed through the Internet and other digital platforms.
  • Portfolio perspective. As a CIO, you’re entrusted with managing a significant share of the company’s resources and staff. “By adopting Azure [Microsoft’s cloud service], we have freed up resources that can be used elsewhere in the company,” says DuBois.” It’s easy to look at your unit’s resources as a personal empire. DuBois’s comment shows the value of freeing up resources for the company as a whole.
  • Patience, and the long game. Reaching the CIO level takes years of effort and patience. The executives interviewed for this piece had served their organizations for 10, 15 or 20 years before being appointed to an executive role. If you’re serious about pursuing an executive appointment at a large organization, be prepared to work for the long term. You can get started today by building your business acumen and learning more about your organization.


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