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The Path to the Top: Insights from Career Histories of Top CIOs

Along the way, acquire technical expertise and a master's degree, even while changing positions and companies.
  1. Introduction
  2. Key Insights
  3. Research Methodology
  4. Data Gathering
  5. Educational Background of CIOs
  6. Initial Degree of CIOs
  7. Highest Degree of CIOs
  8. Educational Institutions
  9. Career Transitions
  10. Transition Across Roles
  11. Transition Across Jobs, Organizations, Industries
  12. Time to the Top
  13. Stability at the Top
  14. Promoted from Within vs. Brought In from Outside
  15. Changing Nature of IT
  16. Conclusion
  17. References
  18. Authors
  19. Figures
The Path to the Top, illustration

When searching for IT talent, the position of chief information officer (CIO) may be the most difficult to fill successfully. The impact of IT on business value and organizational performance has been extensively discussed in both the academic literature2,11 and the practitioner literature.5 All the findings point to the important role the CIO plays in the success of the overall business. This makes it important to understand the traits and characteristics effective CIOs share and the educational and workplace experiences that increase their likelihood of attaining and retaining the CIO mantle, so organizations may be able to identify and groom high-potential CIO candidates and provide career advice to aspiring CIO candidates.

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Key Insights

  • Since the mid-1970s, the time required to become a CIO has decreased significantly.
  • The institution one graduates from has no influence on one’s chances of becoming a CIO.
  • Many CIOs have no experience beyond IT.

In the early 1980s, an in-depth look by Tanniru14 at positions held by IT managers before they reached their first leadership role identified two primary career paths: business and technical. A programmer or analyst entry position led to either a business analyst or technical specialist role. Each such role led to either an IT leadership position or a technical manager position. The past three decades have dramatically changed both the IT and the business landscapes. This is an exploratory follow-up to that study. The goal here, as it was then, is to track the career paths of senior IT leaders—CIOs—and use that information to guide the skill development and career progression of today’s IT talent.

More specifically, the research objective of this article is to identify the defining career experiences and educational characteristics of the rungs of the CIO ladder to provide insight for both the firms that hire CIOs and the IT professionals who aspire to be CIOs. The career histories of many CIOs can be discovered through social media data and is the source of the data in this study. We used an inductive methodology to analyze these histories in order to elicit the key identifying features of IT workers who move up the CIO ladder. We categorized the raw data into industry and job types in order to develop a framework that captures key insights and themes that can be used to guide the actions of aspiring CIOs and the firms that recruit them. These initial results suggest an approach for helping workers with the potential for IT leadership to achieve that potential. We conclude with a discussion of future research possibilities for building on these exploratory results.

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Research Methodology

Unlike the Tanniru study in the 1980s, when data was collected from a convenience sample—known IT professionals from a U.S. Midwest region—the data source we used for our current analysis is from public profiles posted on the social media website LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a professional networking site with more than 332 million users worldwide.1 LinkedIn captures information on over 80% of individuals in the U.S. IT labor force; and the correlation between IT employment numbers generated using LinkedIn data and total employment numbers reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for the “packaged software industry (Standard Industrial Classification 7372), in which a very large fraction of employees are IT employees, is 0.81.”13 LinkedIn is thus a very comprehensive source for information about IT workers.

As in the Tanniru study in the 1980s, the detailed résumés of current IT professionals provided the raw data (such as professional backgrounds and positions held at various points in their careers). The methodology used then and in our current study was to examine the career paths pursued by the IT professionals to inductively derive defining characteristics. The participants in our study reported their professional information on profiles posted in LinkedIn, including employment histories, education, geographic locations, accomplishments, and interest groups. The information on the website is provided voluntarily, with each professional choosing to provide the information he or she deems appropriate. Different levels of detail are thus provided for each individual.

When evaluating the validity of this data, an important measurement concern for us was the likelihood that IT professionals report their technical skills accurately. For instance, there may be a tendency among younger IT workers to report online platform skills even if they lack a useful level of proficiency. Similarly, older IT workers, with extensive backgrounds in IT, may post only a few of their technical skills. There is also some concern about the possibility of fake profiles on social networks.16 However, such outright lying and other misrepresentations can have serious repercussions when discovered by someone inside or outside the firm.8 Additional influences that keep résumé embellishment at bay include the implicit checks associated with peer monitoring and the potential for public embarrassment if one is caught lying in highly scrutinized public social profiles. In fact, a 2012 study by Guillory and Hancock7 concluded “… web sites such as LinkedIn, which make résumé information public and linked to one’s network, can foster greater honesty for résumé claims that are most important to employers.”

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Data Gathering

Searching for CIOs in LinkedIn is not straightforward. The search engine explores only the user’s direct connections and up to three connections away from the user. It does not perform a global search of every user profile on LinkedIn. For this reason, we selected a known list of CIOs from top U.S. corporations, and searched for their public LinkedIn profiles using their names. The names came from The Wall Street Journal‘s 2014 CIO Network Membership List17 that included more than 100 well-known chief information and chief technology officers from the world’s largest companies, providing a valid and vetted population for studying CIO career paths. In 2014, The Wall Street Journal‘s CIO Network also posted a biography of each member, allowing for cross-validation of information in each person’s LinkedIn profile.

LinkedIn had public profiles for 107 of the 137 CIOs on the list. Of these, only 50 were complete enough for us to use in our study. We judged profiles to be unusable for such reasons as missing graduation dates from college, no starting or ending dates for job positions, incomplete job titles or roles, or failing to specify degrees or majors for their degrees. This information is needed to ensure consistency and comparability in the data. When constructing career paths, we excluded jobs considered voluntary or community-service oriented (such as time donated to religious or community-service organizations) from the analysis. In total, we collected 50 CIO profiles with complete data during December 2014. These profiles, in aggregate, reflected 319 different job experiences encompassing 1,269 person-years of work experience. Of the 319 experiences, 124, or almost 40%, were with a Fortune 500 firm.

As shown in Figure 1, not all of the CIOs selected for our current study had worked at a Fortune 500 company. When we collected the data, some were working for Fortune 500 companies, some had previously worked for Fortune 500 companies, and some had never worked for Fortune 500 companies. But all of them, as of December 2014, held the title of CIO, providing a common starting point for us to seek meaningful insights in this exploratory study.

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Educational Background of CIOs

To summarize the educational backgrounds of the sampled CIOs, we mapped the raw data into established academic degree and major categories (see Figure 2). All the degrees earned by the 50 CIOs in our sample mapped into one of these eight degree categories and 14 major categories. We further characterized the majors as being either technical or non-technical in nature. The computer science and information systems majors, because they specifically educate their graduates for careers in IT, were characterized as IT majors for the analysis.

The 50 CIOs in the dataset were very well educated, having earned a total of 92 degrees, as in Figure 2. A majority (66%) had earned a master’s and/or doctoral degree. In addition, three of the CIOs earned two bachelor’s degrees, and three earned two master’s degrees.

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Initial Degree of CIOs

The first degree earned can have a significant influence on future career opportunities. As shown in Figure 3, 78% of the first degrees earned by the CIOs were technical in nature, and only 22% non-technical. Engineering, computer science, and information systems were the most frequently chosen undergraduate majors for CIOs. This leads us to conclude that obtaining a technical degree is an important rung on the CIO ladder. Moreover, of those who earned a technical degree, 44% of the CIOs were trained in IT; that is, earned a bachelor’s degree in either computer science or information systems.

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Highest Degree of CIOs

Of the 50 CIOs we considered, 66% earned an advanced degree; Figure 4 shows the highest degree earned by each of them. Business administration was by far the most popular major for the last degree earned (42%), marking a shift from its popularity for the first degree earned (6%). The choice of a technology major shifted from 78% for the first degree earned to 52% for the last degree earned. While the popularity of an IT major stayed at 34% for both the first and last degrees earned, the information systems major was more popular for the last degree than the first (22% vs. 12%), and the computer science major was more popular for the first degree than the last (20% vs. 14%).

From a discipline perspective, engineering and computer science, which were the most popular majors for the first degree earned (42%), were replaced by business administration and information systems for the last degree earned (selected 64% of the time). Of the 29 CIOs whose final degree was a master’s, 70% earned an MBA and 28% earned a master’s in information systems. Only one of the 16 CIOs with a terminal master’s degree and a technical undergraduate degree earned a technical master’s degree. This led us to conclude that an advanced degree is an important rung on the CIO ladder, and that an advanced degree should be business oriented.

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Educational Institutions

An interesting insight we gleaned from the educational background of the CIOs is that achieving a leadership role in IT does not appear to be affected by attending a particular school. The 92 degrees earned by the 50 CIOs we looked at came from 74 different institutions from around the world, including public, private, highly ranked, unranked, well known, and unknown; 64% of the degrees came from U.S. institutions. Interestingly, 66 of the 74 institutions awarded a degree to just one CIO, only seven schools awarded degrees to two CIOs, and just one school (London Imperial College) awarded degrees to three CIOs. Figure 5 shows the locations of schools in the U.S. that awarded degrees to the CIOs in our sample. Note no single school or set of schools in a particular geographic region led the way in educating these CIOs. This led us to conclude that getting a degree from a particular school or region is not an important rung on the CIO ladder.

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Career Transitions

When the 50 CIOs in our sample began their careers, the top three industries employing them were information technology and services (24%), telecommunications (12%), and defense and space (10%). At the time they became CIOs, the top four industries that employed them were pharmaceuticals (8%), insurance (8%), financial services (8%), and information and technology services (8%). For the CIOs in our sample, the industry in which they became a CIO frequently was not the industry in which they began their careers.

Examining the career paths of IT professionals who achieved the CIO position showed they made career transitions across positions, roles, organizations, and industries. To understand these career paths, it is critical that these positions be mapped to defined roles. IT professionals are considered service providers. The Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) defines a framework that distinguishes between internal and external IT service providers.6 With this framework, service providers can be categorized as IT and non-IT and internally and externally focused, as in Figure 6.

In Figure 7, internal IT service providers are labeled as having traditional IT roles, external IT service providers are labeled as having IT partner roles, internal non-IT service providers are labeled as having firm roles, and external non-IT service providers are labeled as having firm partner roles. IT partners function as IT consultants or IT talent for hire to a third party. Firm partners function as non-IT consultants or non-IT talent for hire to a third party. With this classification, it is easy to track movement from an IT position to a non-IT position and firms that supply IT services and firms that buy IT services.

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Transition Across Roles

Using the roles in Figure 6—”traditional IT (I),” “IT partner (IP),” “firm (F),” and “firm partner (FP)”—the 1,270 person years of experience we collected can be broken down as 83% of the years in traditional IT roles, 14% of the years in IT partner roles, and 3% of the years in non-IT roles (see Figure 8). Breakdown of the data by individual shows only 8% of the CIOs in the sample had experience in non-IT, traditional IT, and IT partner roles (all three roles); approximately 25% of the CIOs had experience in both traditional IT and IT partner roles (both roles); and over 50% of the CIOs spent their entire careers in traditional IT roles (a single role).

Figure 8 tracks changes in roles for each reported job experience. Note that over 70% of job changes resulted in moving from a traditional IT role to another traditional IT role. The next most frequent job changes involved moving from an IT partner role to another IT partner role (8% of moves) and moving from an IT partner role to a traditional IT role (7% of moves). Only 8% of the role changes were associated with moving from a non-IT position to an IT position or from an IT position to a non-IT position. The vast majority of steps up the IT career ladder involve moving from one IT position to another IT position.

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Transition Across Jobs, Organizations, Industries

We defined a job change as when someone either receives a new job title in the same organization or changes organization. During their careers, the CIOs in our sample changed jobs every four years (47.8 months) on average. The average number of positions held by the IT professionals in the sample before becoming a CIO was 5.1. We concluded that an IT professional with CIO aspirations should not stay in one position for a long period of time but rather should change positions periodically in order to move up the IT career ladder.

When looking for a CIO, organizations may prefer candidates with experience from the same industry, since they bring domain experience associated with that industry. On the other hand, organizations also might prefer candidates from a different industry, since they could bring a new perspective. As of December 2014, LinkedIn identified 147 distinct industries.10 While this list is not associated with any national or international industry classification scheme (such as the North American Industry Classification System), it does constitute a logical, mutually exclusive and exhaustive grouping. LinkedIn keeps its industry designation consistent by allowing only registered representatives of an organization to choose the industry designation. That is, individuals creating a personal profile do not choose the industry for their organization; the designation is assigned instead by the LinkedIn authorized organization representative.9

The 50 CIOs in our sample accumulated 1,269 person-years of work experience in 52 unique industries. From the perspective of total time spent, 17% of the years were in information technology and services, 10% were in financial services, 5.7% were in telecommunications, and 5% were in defense and space. Of the 52 industries, 10 accounted for over 60% of the years of experience of these CIOs. The remaining 42 accounted for 40% of the years of experience in total, with no single industry accounting for more than 2.7% of the years.

On average, the CIOs in the sample made 1.5 industry changes prior to attaining their first CIO position. After attaining that position, the CIOs in the sample made an average of 1.2 industry changes. Because all the CIOs in the sample were still working as of December 2014, and some had just become a CIO, this history indicated that industry changes by IT professionals may not be less frequent after they attain the title of CIO. We also note that 75% of the IT professionals who changed organizations prior to attaining a CIO title also changed the industry in which they worked. Overall, we found no discernable influence of industry on career progression, implying organizations may be industry agnostic and IT professionals are not tied to any particular industry.

For the 50 CIOs in the sample, the industries in which they began their careers were quite different from the industries in which they were employed in December 2014 when we collected our data. Figure 9 shows that over the course of their careers, these IT professionals tended to move out of information technology and services, telecommunication, defense and space, and electrical and electronic manufacturing and into pharmaceuticals, insurance, financial services, and hospital and healthcare. In Figure 9, the horizontal axis measures the net change in the number of persons in the sample who began their careers in the industry and the number who were in the industry at the time (December 2014) we collected the data for our sample. Although this movement most likely reflects changes in demand for IT services by the various industries rather than preference for a particular industry by IT professionals, it clearly shows that movement between industries is common for IT professionals moving up the career ladder toward a CIO position.

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Time to the Top

For the 50 CIOs in the sample, it took an average of 21.0 years from the date their first degree was awarded to the date they attained their first CIO position. Figure 10 shows that the time it took to reach the CIO position is correlated with the decade when the first degree was conferred—1970s, 1980s, or 1990s. Note the steep decline in the amount of time required. A possible explanation for this decline is provided in the following section.

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Stability at the Top

While IT professionals go through many different positions before they reach their first CIO position, their propensity to change from a CIO position to a non-CIO position appears to be quite low. In our sample, comparing the job experiences of IT professionals before and after they became CIOs showed a 78% decrease in the average number of role changes per year, a 58% decrease in the average number of organizational changes per year, and a 61% decrease in the average number of industry changes per year. For the 50 CIOs in the sample, Figure 11 shows the distribution of the number of years as a CIO. On average, the IT professionals in the sample stayed in a CIO type role for 8.5 years, which is an underestimate of the true time spent as a CIO since the sample included active CIOs. It appears that once IT professionals take on a CIO position, they generally stay on as CIO (in the same company or in a different company) or retire.

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Promoted from Within vs. Brought In from Outside

Hiring a CIO from within signals the existence of career paths to the top, while bringing in top talent from outside signals a need for varied experience. The reasons to go outside a firm can include a desire for new methods, new ideas, or even a change in leadership, with the new CEO bringing in a new team. IT Professionals must decide whether the best path to reach a leadership position is to stay within a firm or look elsewhere for the next step in their career progression.

The data in our sample points to IT professionals looking outside their current firms, since 56% changed organizations to obtain their first CIO role and only 44% where promoted from within. Of those promoted from within, all but one were promoted from an internal IT position. The lone exception was a director of finance to being promoted to CIO. However, she had a strong IT background prior to the finance position and had been in finance for only one year.

Of those recruited from outside for their first CIO position, we observed two interesting patterns. The first involved role changes. Surprisingly, 30% of the IT professionals who changed organizations for their first CIO opportunity also changed from having an IT partner position to having a traditional IT role. Organizations are apparently comfortable hiring IT professionals from firms with which they partner.

The second involved industry changes. When a CIO is hired, the firm must decide if candidates from the same industry are more attractive (because they have similar domain knowledge) or if IT professionals from other industries are more attractive (because they have a wider range of experience). The data in our study shows 75% of the IT professionals who changed organizations in order to obtain their first CIO position also changed their industry. This indicates that firms are looking for professionals with diverse IT experience or that IT may be industry agnostic. In either case, it appears that IT professionals are not tied to an industry.

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Changing Nature of IT

Information technology is constantly changing. Advances in the digitization of business processes/services, the miniaturization of digital products that store and manipulate data, and the use of agile development methods that deliver applications faster to meet business needs, are just a few examples of such changes. One by-product in IT is an increasing specialization of roles among those who design, develop, and implement IT.

In-depth interviews by Tanniru15 with more than 80 IT executives in 2012 showed a stark change in the focus of IT leadership over the past four decades—from focusing primarily on costs to focusing on strategic alignment and entrepreneurship. In the 1970s and early 1980s, a few large companies produced almost all the IT products worldwide, with IT leaders using these products to seek cost reductions in business operations. The life cycles for these projects tended to be quite long, and the CIO was responsible for managing all phases of the projects.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, introduction of PCs and a large number of small product vendors and off-the-shelf software tools empowered business users to seek control of their IT resources for decision support. This led to two parallel approaches. The spiral development approach facilitated multiple smaller projects, while the conventional waterfall approach developed and maintained larger projects. CIOs had to become adept at managing both large and small projects.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s another major change took place. Large integrated enterprise software packages commoditized many business-process support tools, empowering business and IT managers to outsource these tools to external vendors/partners for improved productivity and customer responsiveness. More often than not, the middle part of the development life cycle—design and develop—was outsourced to external enterprise software vendors. CIOs had to become adept at managing large and small projects from multiple vendors, by focusing on planning, analysis, implementation, and integration.15

As we entered the 21st century, the focus of IT management shifted to developing newer applications using advanced Web- and social media-based technologies. The advances made in Internet and Web-based technologies in the 2000s led to a plethora of hardware, software, and service companies, all serving various parts of a firm’s extended value chain and empowering customers to seek improved services. As a result, CIOs today must manage two different life cycles: one looks at digital innovations to explore newer technologies, while the other continues to support legacy systems. Multiple partners are used to assist with both these life cycles. Today’s CIOs must be adept at keeping the lights on and quick pilot testing of new digital innovations. They have to balance the strategic needs of a changing business through exploration while maintaining a reliable backend operational system using a mix of both established and innovative technology vendors/partners, or two-speed IT.2

In the new environment, talent can be recognized sooner than in the past, and there are more opportunities to display leadership as IT becomes a strategic tool for competitiveness in the marketplace.

These changes in IT led to the establishment of two distinct vendor groups, in addition to the traditional IT user within a firm. One group of vendors continues to advance IT innovation with new products and services (such as social media, Internet of Things, and data analytics) in support of changing business needs, while the other continues to implement and maintain commoditized IT products or services (such as enterprise systems, data warehouses, Web services, and standardized hardware plug-ins). The IT leadership within a firm is expected to interact with both types of vendors while ensuring internal IT continues to support the various applications that are critical to the business.

An interesting by-product of this evolving IT development cycle is the opportunities it creates for CIOs to display leadership. The shorter cycle times associated with the highly visible projects that support innovation allow IT professionals to gain more experience in integrating business and IT, and become more visibile to senior leadership in a much shorter period of time. Increased visibility is a contributing factor in the reduction of the amount of time it takes an IT professional to attain the position of CIO.

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Employee retention and satisfaction are closely tied to career path development and progression.18 We examined the paths several prominent IT professionals followed to achieve a CIO position. This information should be of interest to those entering the IT field with aspirations to become a CIO. The information should also be of interest to IT leaders recruiting new IT talent who want to help that talent develop. However, the reader is cautioned that the findings from this study are for a select group of CIOs and may not be generalizable to all CIOs.

Several patterns emerged from our look at specific career paths. From an education perspective, we observed that the majority of CIOs in our sample earned a bachelor’s degree in a technical field and a master’s degree in a business field. As in Bruni,3 our results show the school at which the degree is earned does not appear to have any influence on becoming a CIO. However, it is important to have both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, and it is just as important to have both technical and business knowledge.

Another interesting pattern is that experience in a particular industry does not seem to affect whether one becomes a CIO. The fundamental IT skills appear to be applicable to any industry. On the path to the top, CIOs often changed both industry and organization. In fact, of those who changed organizations to attain their first CIO position, 75% also changed industries. This implies that either IT skills are industry agnostic, or that tacit industry knowledge is not a significant factor leading to CIO success.

The path to the top for the CIOs in our sample was also characterized by frequent position and organization changes. Consistent with conventional wisdom, moving to new positions and firms appears to help mold future leaders. However, contrary to conventional wisdom,12 our data shows that one does not need to have line-of-business experience to attain the CIO position, or even experience as an IT consultant. The majority of the years of experience of the CIOs in our sample was spent in traditional IT positions (83%), while only 14% of the years was in consulting positions, and only 3% of the years was in non-IT positions. Many CIOs do not have any experience outside of IT or in organizations that provide IT services. This indicates that neither non-IT functional area roles nor IT service provider roles are prerequisites for a CIO position.

Finally, we observed that modern IT structures and rapid change have shortened the time it takes to become a CIO by nearly 50% compared to 30 years ago. In the new environment, talent can be recognized sooner than in the past, and there are more opportunities to display leadership as IT becomes a strategic tool for competitiveness in the marketplace. That is, modern IT strategies provide opportunities to demonstrate significant leadership ability earlier in one’s career, resulting in a much more rapid ascent to the CIO position.

These initial results can be neatly summarized into “needs” and “need nots” for aspiring CIOs. They definitely need technical expertise, a master’s degree, and to change positions and companies. However, they need not go to a particular school, stay with the same company, stay in the same industry, or gain non-IT experience. If IT professionals follow these needs and need nots, they can become a CIO in a surprisingly short period of time.

Our exploratory research produced interesting and useful information about the characteristics of a specific group of successful CIOs, including their career paths, educational backgrounds, and cross-industry and intra-firm experiences. Yet more research is warranted. A primary objective would be to study a large, random sample of CIOs from, say, the Fortune 500, Fortune 1,000, governmental, educational, nonprofit, and small and medium-size business sectors. This would enable us to move from descriptive statistics to predictive and prescriptive analyses.

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F1 Figure 1. CIO sample summary.

F2 Figure 2. Enumeration of degrees and majors.

F3 Figure 3. First degree earned.

F4 Figure 4. Highest degree earned.

F5 Figure 5. Location of U.S. colleges and universities where CIOs earned degrees.

F6 Figure 6. Service role classification.

F7 Figure 7. Percentage years of experience by job role.

F8 Figure 8. Role changes associated with job changes.

F9 Figure 9. Net movement between industries during careers.

F10 Figure 10. The declining amount of time needed to attain a CIO position.

F11 Figure 11. Distribution of years spent as a CIO.

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    1. Blake, K.E. The 2015 LinkedIn Statistics That You Need to Know (Jan. 29, 2015);

    2. Bossert, O., Ip, C., and Laartz, J. A two-speed IT architecture for the digital enterprise. McKinsey & Company, Dec. 2014;

    3. Bruni, F. Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. Hachette Book Group, New York, 2015.

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    5. Desmet, D., Duncan, E., Scanlan, J., and Singer, M. Six building blocks for creating high-performing digital enterprises. McKinsey & Company, Sept. 2015;

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    12. Smith, G.S. Straight to the Top: CIO Leadership in a Mobile, Social, and Cloud-based World, 2nd Edition. John Wiley & Sons, New York, 2013, 110–113.

    13. Tambe, P. Big data investment, skills, and firm value. Management Science 60, 6 (June 2014), 1452–1469.

    14. Tanniru, M.R. An investigation of the career path of the EDP professional. In Proceedings of the 20th Annual Computer Personnel on Research Conference (Charlottesville, VA, Nov. 17–18). ACM Press, New York, 1983. 87–101.

    15. Tanniru, M.R. Should IS departments have a strong presence in the business school? ACM SIGMIS Database 43, 2 (May 2012), 15–19.

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