CIOs: The eternal nomads

In many ways CIOs are like nomads: They might set up camp for a short time, but before you know it they're off in search of other pastures.

The next pasture isn't necessarily greener but it's the eternal search for a sea change that seem to drive the CIO from company to company.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Mick Houlahan's extensive career at the University of Western Sydney - which came to a close earlier this month - made him a treasured stalwart of the education sector, gaining the respect of those at the university and his counterparts at others.

But exactly how long a CIO is likely to stick around isn't ever certain. One study pinpointed five years as the mark when the IT director usually gets itchy feet, a journey that extends from the honeymoon through to inevitable project failure, as some in the role joke. Chris Yates, former head IT honcho at Tennis Australia, prefers a shorter, three-year span. Put simply however, CIOs aren't around for long.

And where they're likely to go is just as uncertain. Some jump from directorship to directorship, but in the latest spate of CIO career moves early-2011 at least four CIOs have jumped ship completely:

  • Scott Stewart of HTM Wilson will soon start at Longhaus
  • Marcus Darbyshire from SE Water is now executive partner at Gartner
  • Julian Lamb from Tony Ferguson has moved to IBM as a senior program manager; and
  • Chris Yates, having wrapped up the last Australian Open, is now a consultant in search of future challenges.

With two analysts, a consultant and a program manager at one of the world's largest IT companies, there is not much consistency with who CIOs change jobs.

It could be the lack of sufficiently challenging CIO roles in some cities. For RMIT's new executive director of IT Services, the desire to move out of the financial services industry after a decade with ANZ led to the big question: Where to next?

"When you look at Melbourne and senior IT leadership jobs, once you go past the banks there's not a lot of interesting, big challenges," Brian Clark says. "The technology challenges have been largely the same."

There are, however, natural paths for CIOs to take, according to Longhaus' latest catch, Scott Stewart. After five years as CIO and, subsequently, consultant to two key financial services companies, he made the switch to an analyst role, set to begin later this month.

The link between the two careers isn't necessarily explicit, but it's there. Not all CIOs make good analysts, he says, but, for some, the fit is natural.

"For some CIOs - for me at least - you get to the point of your career where you want to have more time to think about the wider ICT issues facing CIOs and hopefully emerge as a thought leader that can add value to the industry. This is often impossible to achieve when you are focused on the bush fires and in the thick operations day after day," he says.

"I had new CIO opportunities on the table but my decision point was, 'Do I dive into it again operationally, or do I take the strategic view of helping more CIOs achieve success?' and help to influence the industry in dealing with these problems."

It's that role he hopes to fulfil at Longhaus: Partnering and ultimately aiding CIOs as an independent expert, particularly in the fields of financial services and Cloud capabilities.

It was the desire to contribute to the wider industry rather than a single employer, that sparked the switch. The move is also one that carries into his academic life, given he is currently undertaking an IT doctorate at the Queensland University of Technology.

"The attraction of an analyst role for me as a CIO is it is the best of two worlds, academic and practitioner, you know the pain of the CIO because you have been there and done it," he says. "You know the traps and how hectic the role can be... but now you have time to think and research and not only draw on your own experience but talk to as many people as you can and analyse numerous case studies to draw out the patterns of both success and failure."

He also attributes the move to a conversion out of the "technology religion" that often affects some CIOs - becoming an IT shop that can come to illogically respect one vendor over all others. The Longhaus role, and the analyst roles being adopted by several ex-CIOs, are chances to become an agostic, an IT purist and ultimately an atheist to the aforementioned religion.

For others, the change is more likely the search for a new challenge above all else.

In reflecting on his experience at Tennis Australia, Yates has come to revere the CIO cycle as one that is exactly that: Cyclical.

"I admire people who are able to stay in one position for many years, yet IT is an industry that requires change and disruptive influences," he writes. "Perhaps this is where the life of a person in IT management can be different to other management roles in that it is more cyclical, moving through development phases and returning to take on another challenge."

Ultimately those who leave of their own accord don't always do so due to some grandiose plan or philosophy - they simply want the next idea, the next set of management challenges and the next obstacles that (hopefully) technology will help to overcome.

Follow James Hutchinson on Twitter: @j_hutch

Follow CIO Australia on Twitter: @CIO_Australia

This story, "CIOs: The eternal nomads" was originally published by CIO Australia.

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