Some Thoughts on “Not a Future CIO”

Today I read a really interesting piece in the EDUCAUSE Review by Josh Kim, Not a Future CIO.  There’s a great deal in there to digest, and it’s worth your time to read.  Josh presents the conundrum many higher education IT professionals (including instructional support folks) have.  “Do I want to be a CIO?”

Josh has this to say about the perceived role of the CIO:

We look to our CIOs to be thought leaders on campus and in our higher education technology community, while at the same time we blame the CIO if our Wi-Fi stops working or if our systems are hacked. We want vision and leadership from our CIOs, but we are not willing to accept the risk that comes with innovation. The best CIOs balance continuity with experimentation. They help the campus calibrate its appetite for risk. They deliver on the service promises that the technology organization makes to faculty, students, administration, alumni, potential students… (the list of stakeholders goes on forever), with a disciplined approach to experimentation and learning.

And with that Josh has described the CIO role almost exactly as I experience it.  I thought, “he gets it.” Well, at least until I read the next paragraph:

The challenge facing the modern academic CIO, and the reason some of us don’t want to become CIOs, is the need to constantly balance the technology organization between service and innovation. If you find spending most of your time and energy on innovation exciting, then the CIO role probably is not the right one for you.

And now I’m not sure he does.  Central to his thesis is the idea that if you are a CIO you won’t get to spend much time on innovation.  I’ve done a number of jobs in my career, and supervised almost everything else.  Here’s what I have experienced.  Spending time on innovation has absolutely nothing to do with being a CIO (or not).  It isn’t about your job title.  Nobody I know gets to spend 100% (or even a majority) of their time on innovation.  Everyone has some operational duties.  To the few of you out there that do nothing but innovate and then hand things off to someone else for operations, bless you.  The rest of us have to live in a world where we constantly balance operations and innovation.

So if it’s not the job title that gets you innovation, what is it?  Simply put, the amount of time and energy you spend on innovation is related to exactly three things:

  1. You.
  2. The people around you.
  3. The culture at your institution.

That’s it.  If you’re interested in innovation, are surrounded by folks interested in innovation, and work at an institution that has a risk profile that supports innovation, then you’re going to spend lots of time on innovation.  If #1 is true but NOT the other two, then you’ll spend lots of time being frustrated.

Even this is overly simplistic.  Support of and interest in innovation isn’t a binary state.  It’s more like a Goldilocks’ continuum.  There’s too much, too, little, and just right.  Of course what exactly is too much, too little and just right is for each individual to determine.  I have worked at institutions with almost zero tolerance for risk, and I have not been happy there.  Conversely, I personally cannot imagine being somewhere that does nothing but innovate.  I feel like they’d get nothing done but have great ideas on how to improve that.  I’m in a place now where I get to do enough innovation to be happy in my position but not so much that I don’t stay grounded.  Could I spend more time on innovation and still be happy?  Sure.  But what I have is enough.

I’ll close with a reworded version of the paragraph I quoted above.  The challenge facing the modern academic IT person is the need to constantly balance their work between service and innovation.  If you find spending most of your time and energy on innovation exciting, don’t go looking for it in a job description.  Find an institution and organization where you can do that.  More generally, find an institution that matches your personal innovation quotient.  You’ll be much happier for it.

Ying/Yang symbol

“Yin yang” by Gregory Maxwell – From Image:Yin_yang.png, converted to SVG by Gregory Maxwell.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

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