What does a disc jockey have to do with being CIO?

A lot, according to former CIO for the state of Ohio, now-current Senior Vice President and CIO for shoe retailer Designer Brands (DSW) Ervan Rodgers.

In his June TEDTalk titled “Effective Leadership From a DJ Chief Information Officer,” Rodger uses a powerful analogy where he shares responsibilities with his side gig as an event DJ to demonstrate leadership similarities required for success in both roles.

While he spent less than the standard four years earning his bachelor’s degree in Organization Management, his advanced degree path was a longer road. His master’s of Information Strategy, Systems & Technology, Computer Science took over eight years, with full-time job responsibilities. He worked in IT-related positions for a national bank, and two global leaders in enterprise services before his time in the public sector.

Recognition of the CIO’s leadership responsibilities certainly wasn’t the main thrust for those departments in the early days of IT. Colleagues often joked about the strange tech people and saw them more in the support role within the organization. The new level of CIO understands the enterprise’s business strategy and even is looked upon to be a key driver of those initiatives.

Rodgers noted that a DJ shows leadership through the universal language of music, which has the power to build energy and engage people, such as through line-dancing, or to have them disengage by leaving the dance floor.

This is a powerful skill to master, he said, because the CIO’s energy is contagious and must demonstrate the confidence needed for leading massive tech projects and delivering digital services.

Due diligence through proper research is another key point. Promises to the client cannot be made without ensuring the people who help support the project have the right tools. Research also includes a timeline and budget allowances.

“You must be in tune with all the stakeholders,” Rodgers said.

“On a project, I take the time to build authentic relationships by getting to know my team, business areas, and vendors. By staying in tune, you have the opportunity to read the room. Extend the typical life of a CIO, which is three years. Without these skills, CIO stands for Career is Over.

Rodgers lays a clear message that the role of the CIO is multilayered, but leadership needs to be a tactical skill. Where you learn this skill may be different, but many colleges now offer it or are building a program for a Master’s in IT Management.

Higher education identifies the value of management role in the IT field

You can find this discussion in many places. Should I pursue a master’s degree in IT management?

A thread in the online forum reddit.com shows this debate in the answers:

“Afternoon everyone, I am debating on going for my masters. I worked on a help desk for 4 years and I have been a sysadmin for a year. I completed my undergraduate with a CIS degree. I got accepted into WGU and I am looking at M.S. Information Technology Management or M.S. Cybersecurity and Information Assurance. Anyone have thoughts on either degree?”

Of the 64 responses, some saw value based on their plans to pursue higher management roles within an organization, while others said it wasn’t necessary to obtain their mid-level responsibility role within their career to which they anticipated to advance.

Maureen Carley is the program manager at the University of Wisconsin Extended Campus (UWEX) in the MS-Information Technology Management and the MS Cybersecurity programs. During her time in her former position for Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), she said in 2001 the new Information Systems Chair had the view that the department’s product was businesses’ future employees and began asking what they would need down the road.

“He pulled together a group of high-ranking technology leaders in the early 2000s — which was at the beginning of technology coming to the forefront of being a strategic versus a back-office function,” Carley said. “Their different reporting structures (reporting to the CFO versus the CEO) impacted how they were perceived within the organization, their day-to-day responsibilities, and if they had a seat at the table.

“Their message regarding this early shift was, ‘You need to understand how business and technology are interrelated.’ There was no place they knew of that brought it all together. So, in a true partnership model, VCU and industry leaders built a program devoted to helping foster the mutual understanding of business and technology integration. Program delivery was also done with this model. Fifty percent of the coursework was developed and taught by academic professionals. Industry leaders also mentored students and actively engaged in and helped grow the program,” Carley said.

She was pleased to learn that UWEX had a newly developed online IT Management Master’s degree program and came on board as program manager in 2019. She said the program focuses on the unique roles of a technology manager, among them the duality of the role. “CIOs are expected to be forward-thinking, strategically focused, and driving how technology can impact business in a positive way. At the same time, the tactical aspect of ‘keeping the engine running’ has not gone away. They have to manage the employee experience as well as the customer experience — front-facing applications as well as back-end operations — where both audiences demand seamlessness to complete tasks. At the same time, they have to control who’s getting on their network, so there’s security involved.”

When Carley came across a 2019 article asking why the CIO still reported to the CFO, she thought, “Good question! Why are we still having this conversation, and why hasn’t this problem been solved in all this time?”

The UWEX online program fortuitously launched just prior to the pandemic in spring 2020. Carley pointed out the timing was almost an ironic twist, as the pandemic and associated, almost-overnight, shift to virtual work thrust IT and CIOs into the spotlight as never before. Tactical functions quickly assumed strategic importance, and CIOs now had the attention of both the CFO and CEO.

UWEX’s programs are purposely built as online learning and were not simply a quick readjustment of classroom teaching, as affected by the pandemic with many other programs.

“We have a fabulous multi-award-winning instructional design and media team who work with our faculty, helping design courses to ensure the content is engaging and the learning objectives align with the overall program goal,” Carley said. “In this case, it is helping develop IT and organization leaders alike who recognize and appreciate the strategic importance of integrating technology and organization goals. It’s so much more than just sitting in front of a computer reading PowerPoint slides.”

Students receive other enhancements for their experience, including a dedicated resource with a success coach and an online forum to share job postings, networking opportunities, and simply engage with each other. Twenty students are enrolled in the asynchronous program and the first graduates are expected in spring 2022.

Business partnerships drive curriculum, lead to employment opportunities

Schools across the country often see the value of business partnerships and UW is no different. For its online IT Management master’s program, there is a select group of industry leaders who serve on the program’s advisory board as advisors, ambassadors, and referral agents to the UW IT Management master’s degree program. Meeting twice a year, the board discusses how current and looming IT industry changes may affect graduates.

According to the school’s website, “These meetings ensure the IT Management curriculum stays relevant to evolving IT trends and demands.”

Its advisory board is comprised of IT leaders from across the state and the variety of industries and within the culture for which the state is known — Milwaukee Bucks, Milwaukee Tech Hub Coalition, Sargento Foods, Oshkosh Corp. — and everywhere in between.

Erin Allen, director of IT Strategy and Architecture at Sargento, brings her 20-year experience to the board because she believes in its value to help shape future leaders.

“Gone are the days when being in IT meant you were relegated to the basement; technology has been elevated. Technology and business are now intertwined,” Allen said. “An advanced degree like the UW Information Technology Management program not only helps computer science accredited team members learn about the business of IT but can be a way for those non-technical background individuals to gain the necessary skills to be an IT leader that is a strong business leader.”

Now that’s some good DJ music to many students’ and organizations’ ears.

Photo of Shelly Sack

Shelly Sack

Shelly is Manager of Content Programs for AOTMP®

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