Trying to define the role of Chief Information Officers (CIOs) is as daunting as trying to define technology itself. Any single, simplified definition fails to illustrate the breadth of daily activities unique to each company and industry.
When taking a step back, however, a thread appears to run through their jumble of responsibilities: CIOs optimise the processes that exist today.
So, what does that look like exactly? In the age of machine learning and big data, large swathes of business still run on manual filing, paper documentation or outdated programs. CIOs help transition them into their new digital identity.
Finologee, for example, enables digitalisation in the financial industry, connecting financial institutions to verified third-party and in-house fintech solutions. Its CIO & Co-founder, Georges Berscheid never set out to become a CIO. In its early days as a startup – his third – each member of the team did whatever was necessary to help the company succeed. For Berscheid, who holds business and IT degree, that meant managing IT, products and operations.
“A big part of my role has to do with understanding the business of our customers and then helping them achieve particular tasks in an optimal way with as little effort as possible,” he explained. “They’re trying to solve a problem, but they don’t necessarily have the tech knowledge to find a tech solution.”
No two client partnerships look identical, but each one begins the same way – with Finologee fully grasping the client’s objective. Next, the team architects the application, asking and answering key questions along the way: What will the solution look like? What are the features? How will it be deployed? What resources are required? Can it scale automatically? And that’s all before development begins.
Perhaps surprisingly, CIOs deal with far more than just technology. Client needs, business goals and compliance demand equal attention because technology does not live in a vacuum – it constantly interacts, integrates and cooperates with the real world.
“My job description is much less technology related than people would think,” Berscheid said. “There’s people management, security and regulatory requirements too.”
As the regtech startup ballooned from seven to 30 people in two years, so did the responsibility of managing the team – made up of individuals with their own creative and professional needs. For CIOs with a pure developer background, this aspect can prove highly challenging: “Computers don’t have feelings and emotions. With people, it’s different. We want to take care of their personal preferences and help them grow,” he added.
What it means to be a CIO differs across companies and industries and will evolve alongside digitalization. The size, perception and roles of technology teams continue growing across other industries too: automotive, insurance, logistics and beyond.
Finologee has witnessed the start of a shift within banks where IT is being reframed: once a necessary evil, it is now the ticket to longevity. At Finologee, where IT is not a support function but the core business, the IT team has the highest headcount. Tomorrow’s banks may wake up with a similar demographic as they begin to resemble IT companies rather than typical financial institutions.
“Within the next 10 years, companies that haven’t been traditionally in the IT sector will have to realize they need IT to succeed. Those who don’t will have a harder time,” Berscheid explained. “In general, the role of the CIO is becoming more and more important in most organisations. We see that in banks.”
In the short-term, as financial institutions begin to realize that they are IT service providers, internal resistance could arise, particularly in larger companies: “One of the major roles of CIOs will be to make organisations aware of the importance of IT and get rid of the stigma that IT is a support function that costs money without generating revenue,” he noted.
Berscheid attributes his personal innovativeness to reading and listening. Since innovation is a team sport, he encourages team members to pursue new ideas and identify common challenges.
As for his own challenges, delegating tasks within a startup launched from scratch can be a rocky adjustment for many founders. However, over the years, Berscheid has learned to give away responsibilities and waive being looped in on every email.
Becoming a CIO is often the unintended result of a career in IT rather than a stand-alone end goal, but for those drawn to becoming a CIO, his advice is simple: “Start solving problems. The more you solve, the more people will come to you and, eventually, you can formalise the CIO position if it doesn’t yet exist.”
While no one can say exactly what tomorrow will hold, it will certainly bring its fair share of problems to solve and processes to optimise. Perhaps there is an accurate job description for CIOs after all.