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From CIO to CEO: CANARIE's new president

Mark Roman is replacing an "I" with an "E" to lead an organization that starts with "C," but the story of how he got there -- and what he'll do next -- is a lot more complex than that.

In April, the University of Victoria's CIO was announced as the new CEO of the Canadian Network for the Advancement of Research, Investment and Education, otherwise known as CANARIE. By taking on the role, Roman will be leading an organization that has become the backbone for nearly 40,000 researchers and dozens of hospitals, government labs, schools and cultural institutions. He will also become one of the rare examples of CIOs moving in a career trajectory that takes them out of the data centre and puts them at the forefront of business strategy. Where many CIOs move on to similar roles elsewhere, or end up as consultants or working for the vendors they once managed, Roman will help prove that Canadian CIOs are capable of almost anything.

"I would say it's always something I worked towards," he says. He tried to further his prospects by earning his MBA from Queen's University in the 1980s, "but there are many ways that working as a CIO build you towards senior management. You're always trying to work with people and tap into the goals, strategies and passion for an organization. The CIO's role is about understanding the impact of IT in the mission. A CEO's role is about creating the strategic vision and developing the capability to implement it, which often involves IT."

Roman's IT credentials are pretty hard to question. In his time at UVic, he managed to oversee the successful implementation of a $20-million enterprise resource planning (ERP) system and the construction of $7-million green data centre, consolidated the e-mail platforms and launched a portal that lets professors and students share course material. This work made him a finalist in last year's inaugural ComputerWorld Canada IT Leader of the Year awards.

When he wasn't involved in projects that helped support the overall performance of the school, Roman was also helping with the more innovative work of its researchers that tied into CANARIE. Five years ago, UVic helped lead a project that established two undersea observatories, the North-East Pacific Time-series Undersea Network Experiments (NEPTUNE), and the Victoria Experimental Network Under the Sea, or VENUS. Located off the outer coast of B.C. and the Saanich Inlet near Victoria, respectively, NEPTUNE and VENUS use the Internet to pass information about the ocean, including seismic activity, seafloor ecology and animal movements, back to laboratories. CANARIE invested more than $2 million in funding for NEPTUNE and VENUS, part of which went towards software systems to support machine-to-machine interaction over the network and to manage the large volumes of data collected. CANARIE noted Roman's leadership in enabling the infrastructure behind NEPTUNE and VENUS in its public announcement of his appointment as CEO.

"There was a lot I was doing at the university from a technology perspective to get us back on track to support our core function of teaching and learning, but I got pulled in and become more and more fascinated by the research side and the role that CANARIE plays in Canada," he says. "NEPTUNE and VENUS are just really on the periphery of some really groundbreaking science."

The search is on

In February, CANARIE said that Guy Bujold, who had been its president since 2008, was stepping down for personal reasons. Jim Roche, chair of CANARIE's board became interim president and CEO while Mark Whitmore, past-chair of CANARIE's board and dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Manitoba, became chair, as a search committee was formed.

Although a recruiter was engaged, Whitmore admitted that the hiring process was somewhat daunting.

"For this role, we really needed someone who will command the credibility and respect of three really diverse kinds of constituencies -- the academic side, the private sector side, and then the government side, including our funding partners like Industry Canada," he says, adding that academia has several sub-constituencies of its own.

The search committee met with a number of candidates from the private, academic and NGO sectors, Whitmore said, before settling on Roman, who went through days of interviews before he was finally selected.

"We wanted someone with the technical credentials, plus the ability to manage and lead a corporation, to be the person in charge of the financial, administrative, technical details and overall visioning. The sort of guy who knows how to put together the team to do that," he says, "and I'm just delighted we found the right guy."

A new career path?

Other CIOs may be interested in following in Roman's footsteps, based on research conducted two years ago by the CIO Association of Canada (CIOCAN) and Ryerson University. Titled "CIO To CEO: What It Takes to Make The Leap," the study interviewed chief information officers who had successfully climbed to the top of the corporate ladder and identified 10 key factors that contributed to the career progression of IT executives. These included the ability to build relationships, strong IT governance and whether or not the CIO had a mentor.

Catherine Koop, the report's co-author, who sits on CIOCAN's National Advocacy Committee, says those she interviewed deliberately orchestrated or choreographed their careers so they could take on broader roles in their organization. This combination of being good at the CIO basics but having more business savvy also helped give them the edge they needed, she says.

"Once you get more actively engaged in the business side, you start to see the organization differently," she says. "You see it through the same vantage point that the CEO would."

Doug Weir, a managing director at search firm Boyden who has occasionally been referred to as "Canada's CIO recruiter," says some of the candidates he talks to have the aspirations to be CEOs, but it depends a lot on the individual and the kind of organizations they join. There are reasons, however, that such a career path might make sense.

"I think that communication skills are a critical part," he says. "The CIO is like the CEO -- they should be externally focused, talking to a variety of stakeholders at all levels and across all functions. If you don't think about your message and how you're going to deliver it, you won't be effective in either capacity."

The path is not always linear, however. Koop says those CIOs who take personal ownership for working towards a CEO job sometimes moved from managing technology to a more business-oriented position first. No matter how they fill out their resumes, however, they were partnering more closely with the business side to understand key deliverables and advancing their education.

"Some industries are more favourable to this migration of others," she adds. "If they have some level of reliance on IT to strategically position for the future, or where the CIO could leverage their technology strength and background to driving an organization, that often seems to make sense." This was the case with CANARIE, where Whitmore said Roman's IT credentials were a factor in his appointment.

Weir agrees. "Most of the searches I do now -- and there's one in progress at the moment where this is certainly true -- there's a big emphasis on the business capability, a strong desire for industry experience," he says. "I would argue you want the right ability more than the right experience, but organizations almost always err in favour of experience. I think that's just human nature."

Ready, set, go!

Experience may be seen as paramount because once CIOs take the reigns, they have to focus on a much larger set of priorities. Roman has some fairly major targets for his first year on the job.

"The big area is the renewal of our mandate," he says. ''We need to ensure our production operations are at the performance levels that are required by all our users. We also need to continue to focus on innovation and leading digital acceleration."

Like any CEO, of course, beyond the vision lies the bottom line, and Roman will be spending a lot of time on that, too. Because CANARIE is publicly funded, the organization will be making a fresh application to Industry Canada to ensure it has the resources to do its work.

"The funding is in five-year tranches," Whitmore explains. "The decision point is the next federal budget in March of 2012. The No. 1 absolute strategic priority is to refine the vision of what we want to be and do for the next couple of years."

Roman has already started thinking through these questions.

"We really see CANARIE as Canadas innovation engine," he says. "We can help boost productivity and enable new startups. We should be creating the next RIM, the next Nortel. If we're successful, CANARIE is really about helping make Canada a better place for Canadians."

Spoken like a true CEO.


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