Nearing Retirement: No slacking off in career building for the 60-and-older crowd.

At 63, John Wade is working harder than he has ever worked in his career or in his 12 years as CIO at Saint Luke's Health System in Kansas City. If it's midnight and he's toiling at his home computer, he's more likely catching up on the latest in electronic patient record technology than booking a retirement cruise.

Wade plans to retire in two or three years, at which point he might resurrect Wade & Associates, a consulting firm he started before coming to Saint Luke's. But that seems a distant goal now, when he's working "enormous hours" supporting Saint Luke's Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award efforts, acting as CIO and serving on the board of the Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS).

Wade isn't the only one among his peers who is within retirement range but still burning the midnight oil. For a range of reasons -- from a passion for the initiatives that technology can support, to concern about remaining technology-proficient and industry-savvy, to simply wanting to remain employed -- many IT near-retirees often don't go gentle into their well-earned respite.

"Never did I think I'd work this hard at age 63," Wade says, noting that when he first started in IT, eight years was the typical technology-refresh cycle. Today, it's three to six months. "You have to keep up, and you don't do that between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. -- you're doing it at 12 at night," he says.

Anyone who has survived the ups and downs of a long career in IT knows there's no such thing as resting on your laurels in this industry, and the preretirement years are no different.

"It's important to keep growing," says Tom DeMarco, a consultant at Cutter Consortium in Arlington, Mass. "As we learned from the 1990s and again in the downturn in 2004, corporations have no particular loyalty, even to people on the brink of retirement.

"If I were an employee in that stage of my career, I'd want to learn and get certified" in growing technologies such as J2EE and .Net, DeMarco says. "The key to end-of-career planning is to not treat it like the end of your career."

What makes retirement planning particularly interesting for people in IT is the lack of role models. "We're really only now getting the first substantial generation of IT workers coming to retirement age," points out Paul Glen, a Computerworld columnist and president of C2 Consulting in Los Angeles.

Glen says one trend for people approaching the last 10 years of their IT careers is to work part time or go into consulting or contracting. To do this, Glen says, they first need to figure out what sort of value they want to add to an organization -- be it technical, managerial or advisory. "I see a lot of CIOs who go into the consulting ranks, writing disaster recovery strategies or being coaches to other CIOs," he says. Even among lower-level managers, Glen sees a burgeoning field of IT management coaches. "They're saying, 'I've been there, and I'd rather help others than do this again,' " he says.

Second, the groundwork must be laid. "You need to determine what approach you want to take. If you want to get known publicly, you need to write some articles or a book or speak for some Project Management Institute events," Glen says.

William McQuiston, CIO at Truman Medical Centers in Kansas City, smiles at the idea of scaling back in his preretirement years. In two and a half years, when he reaches 62, he pictures himself golfing and "drowning worms off a fishing pole" after a 43-year stint in IT. But even though he plans in the next month or so to shift into a role as internal adviser to the CEO while also grooming his successor, he still doesn't know if "less hectic" is possible.

For the remainder of his time at Truman, McQuiston will manage a couple of CEO-driven projects that call for strong leadership and the ability to work across organizational boundaries. While not IT projects per se, accomplishing those goals will involve smart cards, Web self-service, contact management, call center technology and other "technology gizmos," McQuiston points out. So is this less hectic? "This stuff continues to change at breakneck speed -- there's no escaping that," he says. So while preretirement may not mean less intensity for McQuiston, it will afford him a new view. "It's a change in what I do day to day, and that has a lot of appeal," he says.

Bright Future

Not all near-retirees in IT have fishing on their minds; in fact, many plan to continue working on a project or consulting basis after they retire. And the market looks good for this crowd. "We're failing to attract our share of young people in the IT industry," says DeMarco, adding that in some companies, the average age for IT workers is 50. "If you'd like to stay employed or do consulting after 65, that's likely to happen."

It's important, though, to do the necessary networking while you're still employed full time. For instance, Wade isn't positive that he'll consult after retiring, but being active with the HIMSS certainly won't hurt if he does.

Even if you just want to stay active in technology, perhaps on a volunteer basis, it's smart to look into possibilities while you're still employed, says Harriet Wasserman, associate dean and director of IT services at Seattle Central Community College. "A common pitfall is for people to not think about what they're going to do next," she says. "They say, 'I'm going to write a book, consult, play with my grandkids.' But you need things that are more concrete than that."

After 22 years at the college, Wasserman plans to retire in two years and says she knows "I don't want to sit at home and knit." Consulting is one option, but Wasserman is also considering community technology efforts. She has served for four years on the city of Seattle's board to advise its IT department on things like school computer labs and community technology centers. "It sounded cool, but I didn't know from afar how it worked. It was good to be right in the middle of it," she says.

Particularly for people who are high up in the food chain or who have worked many years at one company, succession planning is a big concern. And as McQuiston and Wade have found, the handoff and grooming period can help with the transition into postretirement mode.

But therein lie plenty of cautionary tales. "There are a lot of organizations that would say, 'This person is 62 or 63, and he's been grooming the next guy for six months -- we could save a big salary if we let that CIO go now,' " Wade says. But he notes that he's not concerned about that happening at Saint Luke's, given its leadership's ethical commitment.

Some advise against loudly announcing your retirement plans. "You don't want to telegraph that you're mentally somewhere in between," Glen says.

And there are plenty of other potholes to avoid at this stage. "People in the last third of their career can become inflexible about issues and harden their stances about things," says John Challenger, president of Challenger, Grey & Christmas, an outplacement consulting firm in Chicago. "They may fail to change as new regimes come in, or not grow with the technology."

These pitfalls are especially acute because the repercussions of making a mistake are huge. After all, there's no ducking the presence of age bias -- an emotionally and politically charged subject, but one that near-retirees readily mention.

"IT as an industry is still very focused on the young," Glen says. And Wade agrees that "it's not as easy to get a job at the age of 50 as at the age of 30." He recalls arriving for a job interview at a small printing company 13 years ago and hearing from the president of the firm, " 'Oh, hi, John -- you sound so much younger on the phone.' I knew right then, I didn't have a shot in hell at getting the job," he says.

The experience seems near-universal. "People tend to think you're dead," Wasserman says. "You talk about some cool new thing like voice over IP, and people say out of the blue, 'So, when are you going to retire?' " However, Wasserman plans to take training courses in C#, a new administration system and NetWare 6.5. "You have to embrace and love change, and if you don't, you're in the wrong field," she says. "But there are people who don't expect you to do that."

Which is why an awful lot of near-retirees won't be found in a rocking chair anytime soon. "I'll work to my last day," McQuiston says. "I want to give them my full measure -- plus it will make the time go faster."

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at mary.brandel@comcast.net.

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