Would Credentials Make the Higher Education CIO a "Professional"?

min read

Without generally recognized professional credentials, can the higher education CIO be called a "professional" leader in information technology? Or should we consider the job as descriptive rather than a career stage in a recognized profession? Does it even matter?

Would Credentials Make the Higher Education CIO a “Professional”?

What skills does a CIO in higher education need, and what evidence might demonstrate possession of those skills? A recent discussion on an e-mail list I follow (yes, I still subscribe to and participate in e-mail lists) caused me to think about this question anew. With permission, here's part of what a colleague wrote:

"A related question that I sometimes ponder is whether CIO-hood is a genuine profession. As professionals (doctors, lawyers, librarians, and others) often remind me, a 'professional is someone who has completed extensive and rigorous training in order to obtain generally recognized credentials to practice in a specific field.' CIOs, on the other hand, come from a wide variety of backgrounds and, while there are graduate programs that provide concentrations in IT management, there is no widely accepted credential for CIO-hood. I've known CIOs with doctoral degrees, master's degrees, bachelor's degrees, and no degrees whatsoever. And, at least in my experience, degrees don't seem to be correlated with CIO success. So I guess my question back to you is, *should* there be a generally accepted training program and credential for CIO-hood?"

My first experience with a professional certification was in 1993 when I became a Certified Apple Repair Technician. I was one of two CARTs in my location, and this allowed the company to do Apple warranty repairs. I later also became a Certified Novell Administrator (CNA), mostly because my company needed a certain number of CNAs to get a reseller status they wanted. So by 1994 I was a two-time professional — and everything "professional" about my career has been downhill since.

After moving to higher education IT, I had a track record of continuous growth and improvement that helped the organization succeed and thrive, attended conferences that expanded my knowledge and network exponentially — and garnered absolutely no professional certifications. My professional downward spiral continued for over a decade until I landed my first CIO appointment in 2007, at which point I had evidently hit rock bottom and joined the amateur ranks permanently.

I have served as CIO at three different institutions, each of which has required a different set of skills. Some CIO positions are technical: you work right next to the other IT staff on much of the day-to-day technical work. Others are general: you set direction and mentor staff, but the staff members do most of the operational work. Some are utility oriented: you keep the network running and the servers on. Others are partnerships with the "business" side of the house: these are process and mission driven. Most are some combination.

While I long to be considered a professional, I'm hard pressed to say what a CIO certification in higher education would look like. If it covers only the core things that every CIO position probably has in common (leading an organization, managing staff, etc.) then it seems too watered down to call a CIO certification. If it covers more, certification as a CIO risks having multiple different specializations (large public, small public, R1 private, religiously affiliated private, community college, etc.).

At the end, if I were putting together a certification program, I would want to make sure that people in the CIO role (or interested in it) have:

  • a good core of leadership, management, and communication skills;
  • a broad enough understanding of IT to listen, ask good questions (and understand the answers), and evaluate impacts of decisions;
  • a passion for learning new things (and a tolerance for failure while learning them);
  • a social presence and a desire to contribute to the profession; and
  • the self-awareness to understand what kinds of institutions will match what they're looking for in a CIO role and the ability to figure that out during the interview process.

Of those, the last is perhaps the most important and most overlooked. My experience tells me that two CIOs with exactly the same skills will sink or swim at an institution based almost completely on how comfortable they feel in the institutional culture. For higher education CIOs I would add one last thing: you must have a passion for the business of higher education. Working in higher education is a calling as much as it is a job. I often say that I'm a higher education "professional" leading IT rather than an IT leader working in higher education. That is definitely a perspective with bias, since my master's degree is in higher ed admin (my bachelor's is in cultural anthropology, which is where my bias about cultural comfort comes from).

Thinking about certification and labeling of careers, I am deeply troubled with the exclusionary definition of "profession" my colleague shared with the list. It seems to imply that if you don't go through a prescribed program for something, you can't be a professional. If I'm not a professional, then what am I — an amateur? Unprofessional? As a CIO I suppose, though, that I'm in good company. I know of no rigorous training or certification for college presidents, or provosts, or any other leadership position at an institution of higher education. I guess if a university or college president is an amateur, then I should be OK with being an amateur as well. Or, just maybe, the definition of "professional" needs rethinking.

Kyle Johnson is CIO and dean for Information Technology and Services at Chaminade University.

© 2017 Kyle Johnson. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.