[Part VII of E2's two-week How to Become a CIO series.]
Anne Agee retired this year after spending the last half of her career as a CIO. The first half of her career she spent in a rather unlikely place -- in a college classroom teaching English.
Most recently Agee was CIO of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, where she led a major rip-and-replace of nearly the entire university's IT infrastructure -- including knocking down the old datacenter and building a new one half the size and twice the capacity. (We spoke to her about this in a video interview not long ago.)
Her first steps into IT, however, came back in the late 80s when she was teaching English at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland. When the school decided to build a "computer classroom" -- not a lab, but an actual instructional space -- Agee was the first professor in line.
"Nobody else in the humanities division was interested in this," Agee told me. "In fact, some of [the faculty] were vehemently opposed to the whole idea. But I thought it would be interesting and fun."
Agee studied other college's computer classrooms and worked closely with the school's IT specialists to learn how to set up workstations and run a network. Although not connected to the Internet at the time, students were equipped with electronic reference materials. If the students were studying Shakespeare's Othello, they could pull up an atlas to see where the play took place. The college set up a poetry web where students could upload poems to the intranet and use HTML code to embed links to other resources.
Once it became clear that the computer classrooms were a hit with students, it was easier for Agee to convert the non-believers in the faculty. She was named the official instructional technology coordinator for the entire college. In addition to some more hands-on IT functions like setting up the workstations and networks, she trained faculty and taught workshops on instructional technology.
When Agee decided that it was time to move on and began applying for new jobs, she found herself at a professional crossroads.
"I actually had two job offers at the same time," she said. "One was the dean of liberal arts and one was the head of client services in an IT department. And I took the IT job."
As head of client services at St. Mary's College, Agee was managing multiple departments of IT staff. Some IT people say that it's very hard to manage a technical staff if you don't have a technical background. However Agee says she didn't have that problem.
One thing working in her favor was that she was bringing experience in instructional technology, which is something the St. Mary's team lacked. Another thing in her favor was that she had a counterpart, the head of systems, who was much more of a techie. However, the main key to her management success was something else.
"I'm a good communicator and I think that's really the most important thing," Agee said. "I was willing to learn from [my staff]. I respected what they did. I didn't pretend like I knew all about that stuff when I didn't. So they were happy to sit down and explain to me what they were doing and why they were doing it."
Throughout this series, How to Become a CIO, I've asked people about what business, management, and IT skills a CIO really needs.
"The IT skills are probably the least important of the three, to tell you the truth, once you're a manager," said Agee. "If you're hiring me as a systems administrator then obviously you want a certain set of technical skills, but when you're hiring me as the manager of a systems administrator I don't necessarily have to be able to do his job. And as a CIO I definitely don't have to do his job. In fact, they'd be foolish to let the CIO do that job."
As CIO at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Agee was managing over a dozen departments. At the breakneck speed of technology evolution, there is no way for a CIO to maintain hands-on proficiency in everything that a dozen departments do. Therefore she says CIOs need to know enough to help the IT staff when they encounter hurdles, help them stay up-to-date with the newest technology themselves, and empower them to do their jobs.
Instead of techie chops, Agee has found that communication, project management, an understanding of business needs, and knowledge of how to manage your finances are more critical to the CIO job -- and are growing even more essential.
"The role of the CIO has shifted," she said. "I think it's been shifting for a while, kind of away from the technical. But I'd say in the last three, four years in particular, as cloud computing grows more, you're less likely to have the technology actually physically in your control. Your role becomes less technology than it becomes managing the companies that are providing the technology for you… [Employers] really do expect you to be able to manage your money very well and get the best possible deals you can get."
Agee's main advice for anyone who would like to get on the path to becoming a CIO: Get out of your comfort zone.
"The more experience you have, the more flexible you are, the better," she said. "Go out and look for opportunities to work with other groups. Take on projects that you otherwise might not have thought of doing."
What do you think? Are there any English professors in the E2 community looking for a career change? Are there any unfamiliar or outlandish projects you've taken on in order to expand your portfolio? Let us know in the comments below.
Come back to E2 tomorrow to hear how Michael Gliedman of the National Basketball Association first became a CIO. Take the current E2 poll to let us know what you think are the most important qualities in a CIO. Check out the first six segments in E2's two-week How to Become a CIO series: