How CIOs Can Stay Tech-Saavy

As you assumed the role of CIO, your workdays became more business-focused. You've probably spent more time in meetings with business execs talking budgets and strategy than with technologists talking Ruby on Rails. As a result, your core tech skills--the ones you cultivated and mastered early in your career--are getting rusty. Revisiting those skills is exceedingly important, though, and can help you build stronger relationships within your department.

"In the last 20 years or so, we've been putting a great emphasis on business knowledge," says Susan Cramm, founder and president of Valuedance, an executive coaching firm. "What we're seeing now is a pendulum effect. We're hearing more about not having enough technical IT leaders." But finding time to brush up on these skills can be challenging, Cramm notes. The key is to make it part of your day, not another task on your to-do list.

Phil Alberta, VP of IT at a luxury retailer, says that keeping your tech skills fresh helps maintain credibility within your department. "You need to show your staff that you have a passion for what they have a passion for," he says. "If you're mostly into the financials of running IT, you're not breeding this culture of innovation."

To read more on this topic see: Tips for CIOs: Marketing IT, Avoiding Jet Lag and Making a To-Do List and You Say IT, Forrester Says BT: What's the Difference?.

Alberta says that utilizing the people around him has been the most effective way of keeping his tech skills polished. He occasionally drops into his staff's meetings in order to maintain a general knowledge of the projects they're working on and the technologies they're using. Or sometimes he'll visit their cubicles or sit at the same lunch table and ask questions. There are plenty of valuable resources that you can learn from just within your organization, he says.

"If you don't have that relationship [with staff] to freely ask questions about technology, you could be missing opportunities to do great things within the business, such as an integration opportunity. There's such a payback for this; I can't imagine not putting in the time."

Cramm advises occasionally polling your staff and requesting 360-degree feedback. "Ask them about what should be in your curriculum--what technologies they're evaluating, technologies they're using in current projects, what their architecture looks like," she recommends. "Pick a project that's in the works and ask the technologists to show you what it takes to integrate customer data into your business, for example."

Peter Kretzman, former CTO at Classmates.com, finds time outside of work--between five and 10 hours a month, he estimates--to tinker with and brush up on his tech skills by administering his home network, trying out a new device or configuration and brushing up on a programming language or a Web services technology when he has time.

He equates managing technical staff with being an athletic coach or manager: "You need to have enough knowledge about the game, but you can't go out and bat or pitch or field," he says. And drawing that fine line is important. "You don't want to undermine your staff by looking over their shoulders and micromanaging," he says. "People want a management leader who can relate to his peers, but you still need to be a CIO who's focused on process improvement and strategy--one who doesn't do the work themselves, but makes sure that the work is getting done on time and up to standards."

Reach Associate Editor Kristin Burnham at kburnham@cio.com.

This story, "How CIOs Can Stay Tech-Saavy" was originally published by CIO.

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