The History of the CIO

Recently, we looked at the history of the CLO, a role that more or less gained footing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Around the same time, however, another executive position was on the rise: Chief Information Officer (CIO). Tasked with harnessing the growing number of technologies in the workplace, the CIO made sure that business ran smoothly. To learn more about how this role has evolved, we’ve compiled some history about the CIO and what opportunities and challenges lie ahead for this key business function.


At face value, the CIO is in charge of managing and maintaining information technologies within a company. Information technology, or technology used to “create, store, exchange, and use information in its various forms (business data, voice conversations, still images…),” commonly refers to computers, but also includes televisions, telephones, and, increasingly, any device connected to the internet. Of course, with all of this data transference comes security concerns, which are undoubtedly one of the top priorities for most CIOs. Protecting both internal and external information requires them to keep abreast of the latest security attacks, and assess their company’s risk accordingly.

The difference between CIO and CTO:

If you think this role sounds similar to a Chief Technology Officer (CTO), you’re not alone. In fact, at smaller companies, the roles are often used interchangeably. However, there are several key differences that distinguish a CIO from a CTO, which become more apparent at larger companies. For starters, the CIO is in charge of the IT department and primarily services internal customers, while the CTO heads the engineering department and primarily focuses on external customers, reports TechRepublic. In addition, TechRepublic notes, while a CTO uses technology to advance the company’s products, the CIO is focused on streamlining internal business processes with technology. Both roles work closely with the CEO to align the company’s technology with its top line (CTO) and bottom line (CIO).

Life before the CIO:

When the first computer emerged in the 1950s, it was a large machine that filled an entire room. “Companies were so proud of their gleaming, refrigerator-sized computers in those days that many put them in glass-enclosed rooms so people could see them easily. Thus, early data centers were called ‘glass houses,'” reports IBM. In those days, IT leaders were called managers of electronic data processing, CIO Magazine explains, since these computer mainframes were basically “super calculators.”

It wasn’t until the 1980s that offices began distributing personal computers, which gave CIOs more stature at their companies. With this “breakthrough” in the mid-1980s, “chief executives increasingly invited their IT leaders to sit at the table with other C-suite executives,” reports IBM. Shortly thereafter, the World Wide Web emerged, creating an even bigger need for the CIO. “Some CIOs,” reports IBM, “became thought leaders who helped their companies embrace the Internet.

The first CIO:

Once companies began accumulating technology that did more than just number-crunching, they named and defined the CIO role. IBM reports that, “among the first people to have the CIO title were Al Zipf of Bank of America, and Max Hopper of Bank of America and American Airlines.” Today, the modern CIO has a host of responsibilities that fall under her purview, including:

  • Aligning technology infrastructure with business strategy
  • Assessing and communicating possible security risks
  • Ensuring that IT operations adhere to local laws
  • Working with the CTO to define requirements for new technology implementations

Looking forward:

Today’s CIO must balance day-to-day troubleshooting with developing a broader strategic vision for how her company can stay innovative with technology. So what business strategies are modern CIOs implementing today and in the near future? Among many new trends, one in particular stands out: mobile. USA Today quotes a Webroot study reporting that 61% of companies already have employees using smartphones or tablets for work-related activities. The CIO has a big say in deciding whether the company should follow this trend and, if so, whether they should supply these devices or allow employees to bring their own. What’s more, the CIO must be prepared for the latest hardware and software updates among all of these mobile devices.

CIOs are also dealing with the fragmentation of new technologies throughout their organizations, as departments begin implementing their own technologies without the guidance of the IT department. As Vala Afshar writes, “business units are now acting as technology startups.” For the modern CIO, the best solutions will allow for teams to function autonomously, but also give the IT department control over security.

The bottom line:

The role of the CIO has come a long way since its inception, and some are even questioning its future. But, for most, today’s CIO must simply develop new goals and strategies that align with her company’s changing relationship with technology. “For the last couple of decades, the CIO’s job has been to build and manage the internal technology infrastructure that a business requires to operate,” says Steve Ranger from ZDNet. “Today, CIOs are facing a new reality in which success is measured not by the number of staff and projects on the books, but by how few.”

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