by Ben Worthen

The State of the CIO 2002: CIO Turnover

Mar 01, 20029 mins

Jack Lowry, vice president of IT at Goldman Industries of Vermont, has held eight jobs in 20 years. He left each employer shortly after the completion of the project he was brought in to lead. He refers to his employer, an industrial parts manufacturer based in Springfield, as “them” rather than “us.” He admits that he lives for the thrill of a project. As his current ERP project winds down, he feels he’s “getting close to the end of the life cycle”?and sure enough, he’s looking for a new job. The only reason he hasn’t left already is the economy.

“The State of the CIO” survey indicates that Lowry’s reasoning is typical. CIOs’ foremost career concern is finding a challenging workplace. Forty-one percent of respondents said the need for a challenge was the reason they left their old job, and 45 percent predicted that is why they would eventually leave their current one. While career advancement and financial incentives also had strong support in the survey, follow-up conversations reveal that in most cases these inducements simply have to reach a particular level, which in most jobs is naturally met (see “Salary,” Page 90).

The project-centric focus, however, has not led to mercenary-style CIOs who clean house and then leave. On the contrary, CIOs appear to be staying at their job longer than the one or two years that’s so often rumored (see “Career Path,” Page 84). Forty-four percent of our survey respondents have already held their position for three years or more, and 67 percent said they think they will stay at least that long.

The old joke was that CIO stood for Career Is Over?a CIO was shanghaied into the job, and then once things had gone to hell a year or two later (usually the fault of an uncooperative CEO, of course), the CIO was unceremoniously fired. While not much has changed for a CIO who really does run a company into the ground, successful CIOs have more options than ever. Indeed, talking to recruiters and (usually) rejecting job offers is now a regular part of the CIO job.

CIOs Dig Projects

CIOs say they like to finish what they start. If they tackle a particular project, they will most likely stay with the company until the project is complete, regardless of how long that takes. CIOs who are constantly presented with new and different challenges tend to stay with their employer.

Brenda Barker, a 12-year veteran of IBM, took the Wake County Public School System CTO job after the system superintendent told her, “I don’t know exactly what the position would be?I want you to know and tell me.” Barker was given free rein and a $12 million operating budget. “I couldn’t resist,” she says.

Barker has headed IT for North Carolina’s second largest school district for four and a half years, providing the technology to 130 schools with more than 100,000 K-12 students in the Raleigh area. There is also a 14,000-employee business to take care of, complete with payroll. The school system has more than 25,000 PCs and 500 wireless units. Barker implemented an Oracle ERP system for the business functions and is in the process of coordinating an Oracle student database.

Barker has been offered other jobs and almost took one, a state-level education CTO position. The pay was better, and she wouldn’t have had to move. But she turned it down. “We haven’t finished everything that we started,” she says. “We have the ERP running and we have the schools wired, but we are still installing the student system. I wouldn’t want to leave until I felt the job I came to do is finished.”

To get her to leave while the student database project is still ongoing would require an offer she couldn’t refuse, says Barker. “There is something about working for a school system and knowing that everything you do affects the education of students. You could have a bad day here and then visit an elementary school class of 6- or 7-year-olds and immediately remember that there is a reason we do this.”

Of course what makes an attractive challenge is different for different CIOs. The most obvious lures are major software initiatives such as ERP or CRM. But CIOs are also attracted to open-ended challenges. Jim Watkins has worked at the California Office of Emergency Services (OES) in Rancho Cordova in one capacity or another for most of the past 35 years. He’s left, but he’s always come back. He has been the office’s point man for radiation leaks, fires and the Northridge earthquake that disrupted Los Angeles in 1994. Not surprisingly, his definition of a challenge falls on the extreme side.

In the mid-’90s he became interested in information technology and has been the OES CIO since the beginning of 2000. Watkins says that running the IT systems that support disaster response, while less heart-pounding than frontline work, is a more important challenge. For example, one of his duties is to connect temporary onsite fire-fighting command centers to the Internet?a complicated task given that forest fires usually occur far from any communications infrastructure. (He notes that while the difficulty of access complicates his job, the alternative is usually worse. “They had [a fire] in Oakland once, and that wasn’t a good thing to do.”) Once connected, Watkins’ IT department combines global positioning information and weather data to predict the fire’s behavior and provide detailed maps for firefighters. Other prevention work undertaken by Watkins includes running more than 2,000 simulations of dam breaks to identify hazards before a disaster strikes.

The greatest challenge Watkins faces, however, is one familiar to most CIOs: providing Web access to organizational data. Local governments run most of the long-term disaster recovery programs. They are then reimbursed by the OES, which in turn is reimbursed by the federal government. Watkins would like to make the relevant parts of the federal budget available to the local authorities over the Internet. “The problem we have now is that the feds only let us have access by modem one person at a time,” he says. It’s a setup so flawed that “I can’t even be sarcastic about it. The people that run the program want us to have access to the data. But the people who control the data want top security.” Solving the problem, says Watkins, will take all of his technical and personal skills. Nonetheless, it is a challenge he looks forward to unraveling.

Just Give ’Em a Chance

Lack of challenges isn’t the only cause of restlessness. Nearly a third of respondents to “The State of the CIO” survey said that a disconnect with other executives or an unfavorable reporting structure would drive them out of their current job. The fear of finding themselves in a situation where they can’t do the job they want to do clearly weighs heavy on CIOs’ minds.

It takes more than a loud office and a continent worth of phone lines to muffle the change in Dan Poulin’s voice when he compares his old job with his new. He escaped a bad work environment and is happier now than he has ever been in his career?and happy to talk about it. But when he describes his previous job, his voice shifts to a minor key.

For a while Poulin felt like a mate on the Titanic. He had taken the CIO job at Dublin, Calif.-based Hexcel in February 1997, at the end of the company’s two-year acquisition binge. Poulin’s charge was to standardize the composite material manufacturer’s technology throughout the newly expanded business. The spoils of the acquisitions included such obstacles as six different e-mail systems.

Initially, everything about the job seemed great to Poulin: a growing company, a large role for IT and specific challenges. But in retrospect, Poulin says, he was bound for failure. Operational differences among the newly acquired businesses just didn’t lend themselves to a common system, and in the wake of rapid expansion, the central business structure wasn’t strong enough to pressure the new units into integrating.

Making matters worse, Poulin did not have access to Hexcel’s CEO. He reported to the CFO and wasn’t part of the inner sanctum (see “Executive Relationships,” Page 58, for the importance of reporting to the CEO). Cut off from the meetings that determined the corporate strategy, Poulin took a couple of years to realize that things weren’t going to get better. In the meantime the company struggled financially, and the consolidation strategy turned into nip-and-cut. Layoffs followed, and Poulin didn’t see a turnaround coming. Still it took him another year and a half before he overcame the feeling that he was obligated to go down with the ship.

The move to the CIO spot at Logitech in September 2000 was a no-brainer, he says. The Fremont, Calif., computer hardware maker is growing and profitable and only 20 miles from Poulin’s home. But the most important factor in his move, says Poulin, was an executive team that works together to create a climate where success is possible. Logitech’s management “seemed more synergistic. And that was it,” he says. Logitech’s CEO takes an active role in the IT department, and Poulin works closely with his vice president-level colleagues. It is a climate in which he knows he can succeed, and it makes his job fun.

Timing the Career Chronology

CIOs are career-minded, and even those who think they have the perfect job keep an eye on the market and think about the next step. Simply put, career planning is now part of the job. Raymond Clark, CIO of New York City-based Merrill Lynch Private Client Investing, says that he, like most CIOs he knows, has close relationships with a small number of recruiters. Clark hasn’t looked, but he has listened when recruiters call. “[Recruiters] help you and you help them. You can provide them with a source of leads. You might even have people who are a good fit in your organization,” he says.

“Career chronology is important to me,” says Wake County’s Barker, “and networking and interviewing are skills you don’t want to lose.” She spends part of her annual vacation time networking, either through consulting for other school systems or talking with recruiters and school system superintendents. “Not in any formal way,” she quickly adds, “just to know what is out there. I haven’t found anything I would seriously consider.” But if she ever feels bored and gets wind of another organization with the right set of challenges….