• United Kingdom (£)

    We have redirected you to an equivalent page on your local site where you can see local pricing and promotions and purchase online.

    Stay on our U.S. site

Keyboard ALT + g to toggle grid overlay


How to advance from CAD manager to CIO.

By Robert Green

This article was developed by the editors of Cadalyst, a magazine and web site devoted to providing software and hardware information, advice, and tips for CAD managers and users. It is published here with permission of the publisher.

If you’re a CAD manager who wants to take your career to the next level, the logical question for you could be, What is that next level?  Some CAD managers move up to design/engineering management, while others may move into IT management — but a lesser known yet very valid option for CAD managers is chief information officer (CIO). This position embraces equal parts IT, software knowledge, and corporate strategy — far beyond the scope of CAD alone. For those willing to expand their horizons and put in the work, the CIO position represents career rewards in the form of great challenge and better compensation, with the median annual income being $149,058, according to a September 2015 survey by PayScale.com.

In this article, we will explore ways that you can advance your career toward the CIO chair. Let’s get started.

Career Change

First things first, if you intend to transition your career from CAD manager to CIO, you must understand that it is a profound change that will require substantial planning, significant new skills, lots of independent/academic study, and a fresh perspective and attitude on technology management.  Most CAD managers are facing a brutal truth — that is, you’re looking at an extended learning curve of multiple new topics, and it won’t be easy. At minimum you’ll need to beef up your skill set to include:

  • information security
  • strong IT knowledge
  • knowledge of general business systems
  • workflow optimization
  • return on investment (ROI) analysis
  • long-range business planning
  • education and experiential background
  • staff management experience

In addition to learning new skills, you’ll also need to adopt some new attitudes and philosophies regarding how you approach your job

  • thinking strategically rather than narrowly
  • delegating rather than owning tasks

Let’s tackle these topics individually.

Information Security

The prominence of the word information in the CIO title is your first clue that securing company information is a big part of the job.  In fact, long-term data security is probably the greatest responsibility of the CIO. To understand just how wide ranging the security challenges are for the CIO, consider these questions:

  • What is our company doing to secure our networks?
  • What is our philosophy about using cloud-based systems?
  • What are our company policies for personal device use?
  • How do we deal with securing departing employee data?
  • What are the protocols for containing virus/malware problems?
  • What are our policies for disaster recovery and data backup and archiving?

These issues have a very strong association with IT, but in fact, every one requires a strategic decision involving the CIO. The CIO must establish policies that protect company information aswell as direct IT about how to best implement them.

Action items:

  • Understand the company’s current policies.
  • Identify security deficiencies in current policies.
  • Analyze the cost/benefit of current backup and archiving policies.
  • Review disaster plans thoroughly and address deficiencies

As you think through the action items, make sure that you no longer think like an individual user but as a leader who must balance what’s best for the company as a whole with the needs of users. It’s not always easy to take that higher-level view, but that’s what is required for an effective CIO.

Strong IT Knowledge

As we discussed, many of the CIO’s strategic policy decisions are based heavily on knowledge of existing network and IT systems. This begs the following questions:

  • What is your overall IT knowledge?
  • How much do you know about your company’s IT infrastructure?

Most CAD managers already have a working knowledge of directory structures, permissions, and general wide-area network concepts but, as you can already tell, you’ll need broad IT knowledge to make CIO-level policy decisions.

Action items:

  • Beef up your general IT knowledge via self-study.
  • Understand your company’s server structure, Internet connectivity/speed, and existing IT policies.


If your existing IT skill set is solid, you’ll need to start a discovery process to truly understand how everything in your existing network is configured. On the other hand, if your IT skill set isweak then you should strongly consider some online or formal education so that all networkconcepts mentioned are familiar to you. Ultimately a CIO will have to manage the company’s IT infrastructure and doing that will be nearly impossible without a solid general IT knowledge.

General Business Systems

How much do you know about the non-CAD computer systems in your company? Consider these questions:

  • What accounting system does the company use?
  • How does your company manage timesheets and invoices?
  • Which e-mail system does the company use?
  • Which vendor provides servers, switches, etc.?
  • Are the company’s phones VOIP based?
  • Who is your company’s mobile phone vendor?

In the CIO position, you will not necessarily be required to administer all these systems, but you will need to manage them effectively, which requires a working knowledge of the technologyc omponents that make each one function.


Action Items:

  • Do research until you can answer the above questions.
  • Start reading IT publications that apply to multiple industries; I like InfoWorldC|NET News, and Tom’s IT Pro.
  • Create an account at com, a developer of software apps for IT management, and follow the IT forums for free information and advice.


The reality for most CAD managers moving to a CIO position is that they’ll need to transition from being a technical expert in a single field (CAD) to a functional expert in all the departments touched by the company’s information strategy.


Workflow Concerns

The truly savvy CIO doesn’t think about tools alone, but also about workflow methods and optimization. After all, if anybody should have a strategic vision for using IT/CAD and business systems to power the company’s workflows, shouldn’t it be the CIO? To begin thinking more like a CIO, ask yourself:


  • What are our company’s current workflows?
  • Are there areas where information systems are actually a barrier to productivity?
  • How does the company support multi-office collaboration?
  • Do our networks accelerate project execution or slow it?
  • What would it cost to fix any problems?


Action Items:


  • Think about the questions above.
  • Create a plan for what you’d change.
  • Create a budget for your plan.


Going through these questions and action items provides excellent examples of how the CIO must think about work processes. Part technical expert, part user, part financial officer, the CIO must think of everything to solve the workflow jigsaw puzzle.

Return on Investment (ROI) Analysis

As a CIO, you would be responsible for updating and modernizing all manner of computer systems and software — all of which cost a lot of money and cannot be acquired all at once. You’ll be expected to prioritize the purchase of big-ticket items, deciding which resources to purchase and when. This long-term asset prioritization is where ROI analysis becomes critically important.

ROI is exactly what the name implies: A way to prove the return gained from a given investment.  In almost all CAD management scenarios, investments generate a positive return via time/labor savings, and this will hold true for most investments you would make as CIO. Therefore, any company purchase should generate labor savings that justifies the expense. Furthermore, since the kind of technology we typically work with — computers, servers, software — only lasts a few years, the ROI timeframe we are typically forced to work in is not more than three years.

To make the ROI argument work you’ll need a thorough understanding of the terms and concepts used to compute ROI and payback values. To gain this understanding read through the ROI Glossary at the end of this article.

Action items:

  • Become familiar with ROI terminology.
  • Learn to frame budget requests in ROI terms. 
  • Read my Cadalyst article, “Making Big Changes: Putting ROI into Action.” It’s several years old now but still a relevant, comprehensive look at ROI justification for IT purchases.
  • Start thinking long term.

As you advance your CAD management responsibilities, start thinking like a CIO by using ROI logic to justify your decisions financially. This new thought process won’t take hold overnight, but it will become natural over time and make you far more effective in getting your budget requests approved by senior management because you’ll be making a strong financial case for any purchase you propose.

Long-Range Business Planning

Hand in hand with ROI analysis is taking a longer- term view of the sorts of computer tools your company will need to remain competitive and productive over a three- to five-year period. Think of these diagnostic questions:

  • Which systems will become obsolete in the next five years?
  • Which systems must we modernize in one year? Three years?
  • Which new systems will we need to leverage new technologies?
  • How will system changes affect our training needs?
  • What new communications infrastructures will we need? 

As you can see, to make the leap to CIO you’ll need to expand your thinking to embrace this longer term view with a much wider focus than just CAD.

Action items

  • Answer the above questions for your company.
  • Think about how to create an ROI for each item.

If you can forecast your company’s needs and justify them using ROI logic, then you’re well on your way to having a solid business planning skill set.

Education and Experiential Background

In terms of background, CIOs typically have a bachelor’s degree in IT, management information systems, engineering, or project management combined with years of in-the-trenches experience making technology work. And although some companies will only hire a CIO who has an MBA, more companies today (particularly mid-size firms) are hiring CIOs who can offer the company a competitive edge through strong industry-specific experience and managing technology change rather than favoring theoretical studies.

The best educational strategy for CAD managers pursuing the CIO position now appears to be:

  • Gain real-world, in-the-trenches experience.
  • Augment your education via part-time study and obtain certifications as needed.
  • Complete your bachelor’s degree (if not already done).
  • Pursue an advanced degree if possible.

Your CAD management experience will count toward the qualifications for a CIO position, but demonstrating the self-discipline to advance your education shows strong motivation, organization, and mental skills that hiring managers notice.

Staff Management Experience

Last but not least, the long list of CIO responsibilities includes staff management. Specifically, a CIO would likely oversee:

  • the IT director and staff
  • the CAD manager
  • IT and equipment contractors

An effective CIO is one who can delegate tasks and manage staff effectively. So what can a CAD manager do to prepare for this aspect of the CIO job?

Action items:

  • Adopt a professional manner of dealing with all CAD users.
  • Pay close attention to management-intensive CAD tasks such as standards compliance, training, and budgeting.
  • Delegate appropriate CAD tasks to users.
  • Work with your boss to learn more about management.
  • Read a good management book occasionally.

Becoming a good staff manager takes time and effort, but it is a skill that can be mastered with practice.

Summing Up

I hope this article can help you decide if a CIO position is something you want to pursue and, ifso, how best to build your skill set. If you do want to commit to the CIO career track, create a personal game plan to tackle the priorities I’ve discussed. Even if you realize that a CIO positionis not something you want, you still can use this advice to think more like an executive andbecome a better CAD manager. Either way, your career will benefit.

ROI Glossary

Return on investment (ROI).  ROI is simply the savings an investment can produce divided bythe outlay the investment requires, expressed in percentage form.  An example would be if putting a new plotter in place at a total cost of $5,000 could save you $1,000 per year, the ROI would be (1,000/5,000) • 100% = 20%.

Annual savings: The yearly productivity gain (or saved time if you’d prefer) that results from investing in a new technology.  You can convert saved time into dollars by using the labor rate of the time you save.  For example, if an employee who earns $50/hour saves three hours/month,the annual savings would be $1,800 (3 hours/month over 12 months at $50/hour = $1,800).

Note: If purchasing new hardware, software, or training can’t save you time, then there’s really no point in investing in that item, right?

Year 1 outlay: The initial amount you spend to invest in an item.  Remember to include allmoney spent on hardware, software, training time, your time to implement the investment, lostproductivity due to learning curve, etc. The first year outlay is always the largest because it encompasses so many spending components.

Recurring outlay: The annual amount of money it takes to keep an investment in service. Remember to include hardware warrantees, software subscriptions, refresher/upgrade training sessions, etc.  

Recurring outlays are typically 20% to 25% of the year 1 outlay.

Year 1 ROI: The amount of savings in the first year of the investment divided by the year 1 outlay.  This number is typically low for new hardware and software because you have large initial outlays in the first year.

Year 2 ROI: The amount of savings in the second year of the investment divided by the total outlay in the second year.  This number is typically much higher than year 1 because the large initial and labor outlays were absorbed in year 1.

Year 3 ROI: Usually the same as the year 2 ROI unless a new computer must be purchased.

Aggregate ROI: The total savings for three years divided by the total costs for three years.  

Payback period: The number of months or years it takes for the savings from an investment to exactly equal the outlays for the investment. You may have to interpolate to find the exact value. If the payback period exceeds three years, then the investment isn’t good enough to pay

Robert Green performs CAD programming and consulting throughout the United States and Canada. He is a contributing editor for Cadalyst magazine and the author of Expert CAD Management: The Complete Guide. Reach him via his web site, www.cad-manager.com.

Other articles you might be interested in