Training for retirement

At 63, John Wade is working harder than he has ever worked in his career or in his 12 years as CIO at a healthcare organization. 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 consultancy he started before taking his current job. But that seems a distant goal now, when he's working "enormous hours" as CIO and serving on the board of the health sector industry association.

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 gently 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 8am and 7pm -- you're doing it at midnight," 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 pre-retirement years are no different.

"It's important to keep growing," says Tom DeMarco, a consultant at Cutter Consortium. "As we learnt 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."

Pioneer retirees

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 US Computerworld columnist and president of C2 Consulting.

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, write some articles or a book or speak for some Project Management Institute events," Glen says.

William McQuiston, CIO at a medical centre, smiles at the idea of scaling back in his pre-retirement years. In two and a half years, when he reaches 62, he pictures himself golfing and "drowning worms on a fishing rod" 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 the office, 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 smartcards, Web self-service, contact management, call centre technology and other "technology gizmos", McQuiston says. So is this less hectic? "This stuff continues to change at breakneck speed -- there's no escaping that," he says. So while pre-retirement 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.

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 post-retirement 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 his company, 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.

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