So, What Does a CIO Actually Do All Day?

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Sits in lots of meetings, seeks to build consensus and handles the unexpected.

A day in the life of a chief information officer at a federal agency involves a lot of meetings, a search for consensus on key decisions and a dose of the unexpected.

So said four federal CIOs who appeared at the ACT-IAC Management of Change conference Monday in Cambridge, Maryland.

The four CIOs, who spoke under rules set by conference organizers that they not be quoted by name, said working with their colleagues in other parts of the agency is a constant -- and sometimes challenging -- task.

“My day is generally going to meetings,” said one of them. “A good day is when we can make a decision.”

One key challenge, another said, is that “the requirements outpace the budget” on a regular basis. “So on any given day, I’m negotiating, [asking] ‘Do you really need all this right now?’”

“Ninety-five percent of the time, I convince people to make the right decision,” said another. “Five percent of the time, I have to tell them what the decision is.”

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While the CIOs had varying degrees of authority and responsibility, all indicated that the heads of their organizations ultimately look to them to provide strategic guidance when it comes to purchasing and deploying IT systems.

The CIOs said dealing with information technology contractors -- both those doing business with their agencies and those who would like to -- takes up a fair amount of their time. “I get 15 to 20 emails a day from vendors who would like to meet,” one of them said.

Day-to-day frustrations, the CIOs said, included the limitations and restrictions in federal acquisition and hiring systems. The people responsible for such systems “think their only function is to make sure I don’t break the law,” lamented one CIO. “They’re good people, but they’re stuck in bad systems.”

Unanticipated issues, especially involving IT security, arise on a regular basis, panelists said.

“Don’t show up,” one noted, “unless you have a high tolerance for a lot of surprises.”