CIO Wanted: Certifications Not Required

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Should higher education CIOs value IT industry certifications against other ways of learning and proving their skills?

Newspaper ad for CIO circled in red marker
Credit: Tashatuvango / © 2020

I've been employed in information technology since the late 1990s when IT industry certifications were all the rage. In those days, several of my college classmates stockpiled them—MCP, MCSE, CNA, CNE, and more—in preparation to enter a hot job market.1 At the time, we felt that credentials provided us access to an exclusive club and virtually assured our pick of several well-paying jobs.2 Fast-forward to today, and the demand for certifications remains strong.3 Whenever a new product is released into the market or a popular IT specialty emerges, rest assured that related industry certifications will soon follow.

A few years ago, I held a director role at my university employer when the CIO position, directly above me, opened up. As I prepared to compete for the role, I fell back on my long-held assumption that possessing specific industry certifications, even if they were not required, would set me apart from other candidates for such a critical organizational role. However, after doing preparatory research and participating in the hiring process, I began to strongly question that assumption. While my hiring officials certainly did not ignore the certifications that the other candidates and I held, they didn't seem to consider certifications as strongly as I had predicted. Further, an informal scan of several position announcements for top IT leadership positions at other colleges and universities revealed that many other higher education institutions seemed to operate in the same manner.

After succeeding in my bid for the CIO role, I set my questions aside, focused on my new duties, and greatly expanded my technology horizons. Despite a long career in programming, systems administration, security, and data center work, I had only tangential involvement in technical support, networking, and other critical aspects of information technology prior to becoming a CIO. I quickly developed a thirst for knowledge in specialties like project management, IT auditing, change management, IT business alignment, governance, and much more. As I learned about these specialties, my questions about certifications for CIOs began to surface once again.

Clearly, obtaining certifications in many specialties is valuable for IT workers.4 However, as a CIO at an institution of higher education, I wondered how I should value IT industry certifications against other ways that an IT professional can learn and prove that they possess skills that are useful and marketable.

About a year ago, I began to brainstorm ways in which I might formally answer that question. I considered that there are many ways to define value.5 Some might define value as utility, meaning that during a certification effort, one might gain skills that prove useful as one carries out the role of CIO. This is likely true, but one can also obtain those skills without earning the associated credential (not a popular notion in higher education but pragmatically possible). With this in mind, I decided that I would focus on something akin to return-on-investment for a CIO. This is not to say that I would consider the initial cost of particular certifications, but rather I wanted to discover whether CIOs experience concrete results from obtaining them. Specifically, I wondered if obtaining a particular certification results in a higher likelihood of obtaining a higher education CIO role, or if certain certifications lead to greater compensation for higher education CIOs. Recalling my earlier experience scanning IT position announcements, I approached a faculty member at my university with an idea. I would begin by researching position announcements for higher education CIOs and equivalent, alternately titled positions. I would supplement this work by surveying a group of higher education CIOs regarding their experiences around the attainment of their positions, their perceived value of the certifications they hold, and their perception of the value placed on certifications by their employers.

While many social media and job-seeker websites list higher education job vacancies, I relied on HigherEdJobs as a simple, automated method of delivering position announcements based on specific search criteria. My automated search criteria included "Admin - Information Technology" roles of "IT Manager/Director" and "Other IT," as well as "Executive" roles of "Academic Vice Presidents and Provosts," "Administrative Vice Presidents," and "Other Executive." I ran this search from mid-May 2019 to mid-May 2020. I scoured the position announcements to find institutions seeking a CIO or equivalent position (VP of IT, AVP of IT when there is no VP of IT, manager/director of IT when there is no AVP/VP of IT, chief technology officer when there is no CIO, chief information technology officer, and similar variations). I supplemented the automated search with periodic manual searches on HigherEdJobs for "chief information officer," "vice president," and "information technology." In all of the position announcements, I noted mentions of any required, preferred, or desired industry certifications, even ones mentioned in generic terms rather than by name or abbreviation (i.e., service management certification). I stored these results in a table and removed duplicate entries referring to the same position.

In total, I discovered sixty-five unique position announcements for CIOs and equivalent positions. Of these, fifty-five of them contained no mention of industry certifications. One of the announcements mentioned "appropriate IT certifications" as a desired qualification but gave no examples. Another listed SQL certification as preferred but provided no further details. Another single announcement noted the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification as preferred, and yet another indicated a preference for "one or more of" the following certifications: CompTIA A+, CompTIA Cybersecurity Analyst (CSA+), CompTIA Advanced Security Practitioner (CASP), Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP), VMware VCP6, or Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA). The final six announcements all mentioned a preference for Project Management Professional (PMP) or Project Management Institute (PMI) certifications. Of these six announcements, one listed no additional certifications, one mentioned Six Sigma certification, and four mentioned the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) certification in service provisioning. Notably, the four announcements that mentioned both PMI and ITIL were all posted by a single employer (the Ellucian company).

In my search, 84.6 percent of the position announcements did not mention certifications at all, while 15.4 percent mentioned at least one certification. Of the group that mentioned at least one certification, 40 percent were for CIO positions at institutions managed by Ellucian. The others were not consistent in terms of similar certifications mentioned. So, what does this mean?

From this collection of position announcements, no clear pattern of preferred certifications for higher education CIOs emerged. There may be many reasons for this that are worthy of further exploration. Perhaps hiring officials are leaving the door open for great candidates who do not have a collection of letters after their names. Or perhaps technical certifications are too specific for IT generalists like CIOs. Perhaps institutions value career experience over certification, or perhaps no certification covers the specific skills that higher educational organizations require of a top IT executive.

If I can derive no clear set of universally preferred IT industry certifications from an analysis of higher education CIO position announcements, what might I learn from higher education CIOs themselves? As I pondered this question, I conferred once again with my faculty advisor to develop a survey. The survey asked participants whether they were currently CIOs (or equivalents). It also asked them for some information about their length of employment and the demographics of their institution. Respondents who said they were not currently CIOs were thanked for their time and exited from the survey. If they responded in the affirmative, the survey continued by asking them whether they currently hold any IT industry certifications and which ones. Follow-up questions for those who indicated that they possessed at least one IT industry certification included whether their institution required certain certifications at the time of the their hiring (and which ones), whether participants believed their certifications provided a competitive advantage over other applicants for their positions, and whether they believed their certifications enabled them to command greater compensation than other candidates. All participants, whether they held certifications or not, were then asked if their institutions value certifications and whether certifications will be required of their positions in the future.

I distributed a link to my online survey to the EDUCAUSE CIO email list. After two weeks, fifty-three individuals completed the survey. Of these individuals, forty-three indicated they were either a CIO or equivalent. The CIOs represented schools with enrollments ranging from three hundred students to fifty thousand students (mean 10,119). The CIOs had tenures ranging from six months to thirty-three years (mean 6.9 years). Almost 56 percent of them were from public schools; 44 percent were from private schools. The majority (72.1 percent) were from four-year institutions, 18.6 percent were from two-year institutions, and the remaining 9.3 percent were from "other" (graduate or research) schools.

The group provided many noteworthy responses, starting with their answers to the question, "When you were hired, were IT industry certifications listed as a requirement of the position?" Remarkably, or perhaps somewhat expectedly given my earlier analysis of position announcements, only one CIO out of forty-three indicated that certifications were required by the organization at the time the CIO was hired. In that one instance, the required certifications were reportedly PMP and ITIL. CIOs who responded to the statement, "I believe my institution values IT industry certifications held by top-level IT executives" (5-point Likert scale from 1-strongly agree to 5-strongly disagree) indicated general disagreement (mean 3.814, median 4.000, standard deviation 0.958). CIOs responded to the statement, "I believe IT industry certifications will be required of this position in the future" (5-point Likert scale from 1-strongly agree to 5-strongly disagree) with strong disagreement (mean 4.279, median 5.000, standard deviation 0.959).

Among the group of forty-three CIOs who responded to the survey, only nine indicated that they held an IT industry certification when they were hired. When those nine CIOs were asked to respond to the statement, "I believe my certifications provided me with a competitive advantage over other candidates for my position" (5-point Likert scale from 1-strongly agree to 5-strongly disagree), they responded somewhat positively (mean 2.667, median 2.000, standard deviation 1.225), but the small sample size should be noted. When asked to respond to the statement, "I believe my IT industry certifications enabled me to command greater compensation or benefits than I may have commanded without them" (5-point Likert scale from 1-strongly agree to 5-strongly disagree), the group responded neutrally but inconsistently (mean 3.111, median 3.000, standard deviation 1.537, kurtosis 1.562). In addition to the nine CIOs who held certifications at the time of their hiring, two additional CIOs reported that they had earned certifications since their hiring. The most popularly held certification was ITIL (eight out of eleven at the Foundation or an unspecified level), followed by Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) (two out of eleven) and PMP (two out of eleven). Other certifications listed once each included CISSP, Amazon Web Services (AWS), DevOps, Certified in the Governance of Enterprise IT (CGEIT), Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP), Certified Scrum Professional (CSP), Certified Scrum @ Scale Practitioner, Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP), Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT), and Novell Certified Engineer (NCE).

While some of my study results are inconclusive due to small sample sizes and other limitations, the results of the position announcement analysis and the survey both indicate that higher educational institutions do not require IT industry certifications of their CIOs, and many CIOs do not hold such certifications. Of the few institutions that did require certifications, ITIL and PMP were the most often cited IT industry certifications and were among the most commonly held by surveyed CIOs. ITIL is currently one of the most popular IT certifications. There is evidence that service-management certifications like ITIL lead to a compensation benefit in general, which could explain the desirability of this certification.6 While interpretations of this information may vary, I will report that I obtained my ITIL v4 Foundation certificate during the course of this study, and I have a list of other certifications that I want to complete as time allows.

If you are a CIO or prospective CIO looking for the most productive methods of increasing your marketability, I suggest you seek ways of improving soft skills, such as deep listening.7 Reach out across your organization and learn how IT can serve as a strategic partner for your institution.8 Higher education CIOs in particular must make an effort to understand the missions of their academic institutions and suggest ways that IT can drive those missions forward to avoid the risk of being relegated to a service organization.9 Participate in governance groups, read trade journals, seek out mentors, join professional organizations, utilize your professional development opportunities, read leadership and management books, and stay abreast of current trends in the technology and higher education sectors.

While I personally use many of the aforementioned skill-development methods, I also advocate the options available to CIOs through higher education. You will find these in many forms, such as certificate programs, master's degree programs, or doctoral degree programs in leadership, information technology, computer science, business, or similar disciplines. As an example, I am currently pursuing a doctor of education degree in organizational leadership from my institution, a pursuit in which I am learning a great deal about leadership theory and practice—topics that apply to leadership much more broadly than IT alone. I believe this effort and the attainment of a doctorate will help me earn respect among other well-educated leaders on my campus and across academia. From my experience reading position announcements, I noted that advanced degrees are frequently cited as preferred or desirable, and sometimes as required, qualifications. Perhaps that will be my next avenue of research.

To prospective higher education CIOs out there, best of luck in the hunt.


  1. "9 Crazy Cisco Certification Facts from the 90s," Career Progression (blog), CBT Nuggets, September 22, 2016; Julie Hatch and Angela Clinton, "Job Growth in the 1990s: A Retrospect," Monthly Labor Review 123, no. 12 (December 2000): 3.
  2. D. Scott Hunsinger and Michael A. Smith, "Predicting Hiring Managers' Intentions to Use I.T. Certification in the Selection Process," Journal of Information Technology Management XVI, no. 4, (January 2005), 8.
  3. 2018 Value of IT Certification,
  4. Robert Half, "10 Highest Paying IT Certifications for Tech Pros," The Robert Half Blog (blog), Robert Half, October 18, 2018; Sarah White, "10 IT Certs Paying the Highest Premiums Today," Certifications (blog), CIO, August 20, 2020; "15 Top-Paying IT Certifications for 2020," Global Knowledge, February 9, 2020.
  5. Jim J. Quan, Ronald Dattero, and Stuart D. Galup, "Information Technology Wages and the Value of Certifications: A Human Capital Perspective," Communications of the Association for Information Systems 19, no. 6 (March 2007): 82.
  6. Ryan Day, "5 Most Popular IT Certifications for 2020," Resource Library, Global Knowledge, May 11, 2020; Stuart Diaz Galup, Ronald Dattero, and Jing Quan, "The Compensation Benefit of ITIL® Skills and Certifications," International Journal of Service Science, Management, Engineering, and Technology 7, no. 2 (2016): 1.
  7. Richard Katz, "The CIO's New Clothes," EDUCAUSE Review, October 29, 2018.
  8. Darren Catalano, "3 Major Changes to the Role of the Higher Ed CIO," Industry Insights (blog), EDUCAUSE Review, April 29, 2019; Martha Heller, "The 12 CIO Skills Every Company Wants," CIO, February 19, 2020.
  9. Kimberly Cassidy and Gina Siesing, "What Presidents Want from their CIOs, and What CIOs Would Like from Their Presidents," EDUCAUSE Review, EDUCAUSE, October 29, 2018.

Greg Hackbarth is the Assistant Vice President for IT at Western Kentucky University.

© 2020 Greg Hackbarth. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.