Graceful exits from IT: Why CIOs decide to move on

Great CIOs and IT executives help drive their companies by being agile, innovative managers. They nurture their employees, build talented teams and foster creativity in their people. They try new things. They lead by example.

And then they leave.

Or some do, at least. The CIO role has always been volatile, but above and beyond the normal movement in the industry, the past several years have seen an uptick in anecdotal reports of talented and visionary CIOs leaving their posts. Some head up the corporate ladder to even higher positions or move out of the IT department to take jobs in business units. Others strike out on their own, perhaps pursuing careers as consultants or Web entrepreneurs.

Several CIOs who have made such choices are past honorees in Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders program, which indicates that they're seasoned IT professionals with solid management skills. Since such talented people are forgoing long-term careers as CIOs, it's fair to ask: Do these departures represent a natural progression in the careers of accomplished executives, or do they say something troubling about the working environment of enterprise IT? There may be clues in these stories of six IT professionals who left jobs as CIOs.

From IT to Operations

"There are different types of CIOs," says Bryan J. Timm. "I'm the type who wants to be an enabler of the business, so personally I needed to move into an operations role."

Timm, 45, is currently chief operating officer at Los Angeles-based fashion company Halston. He came to Halston from another fashion company, Vernon, Calif.-based BCBG Max Azria Group, where he was CIO from 2008 to 2011. Before that, he was CIO at Guess.

"In all my IT roles, I was always pushing the idea that IT could make things better, but often that message fell on deaf ears. By moving into an operations role, there was a bigger chance of being able to make that happen," Timm says.

When he joined Halston, he got such chances in his new role as COO. "We are relaunching a contemporary women's apparel brand," he explains. "I'm able to make every single operational decision" -- from choosing a third-party logistics provider to deciding what mobile platform to standardize on -- "without needing to consider inherited decisions from prior management. It's a neat opportunity to leverage IT from scratch and make things as efficient as possible."

Tapping his prior tech experience, Timm made the decision out of the gate to outsource maintenance and systems development. "We need to be experts in designing and delivering beautiful garments, not making sure that EDI processed successfully last night."

Six types of restless CIOs

Can you tell if a CIO is at risk of leaving -- or being pushed out? Analyst Frank Scavo, president of Computer Economics, an IT research firm in Irvine, Calif., says these six types should be on the watch list.

1. The Irrelevant CIO: When a CIO focuses too much on ongoing IT support instead of evaluating the direction of the business and using technology to help the company move forward, he is at grave risk of making himself irrelevant. "You can see how a CIO like that becomes a second-tier player in the business," Scavo says. This is a CIO who's a prime target for being pushed out.

2. The Frustrated CIO: A CIO might feel as though he has hit a career dead-end when he really wants to make a difference but has been pigeonholed as a glorified IT support technician and isn't given a chance to help set long-term goals and strategy. "He may need to leave, and he may find out that it's more attractive to do what he wants to do as an IT consultant," says Scavo.

3. The Burned-Out CIO: Some CIOs are "tired of being in a pressure-cooker, [tired] of having projects to deliver while being starved of funds," Scavo says. "They're always getting beaten up by peers about delivering technology. They are smart people and they want to do a good job, but it's a high-pressure job and they get burned out."

4. The Bored CIO: An IT leader may grow restless and start looking for challenges elsewhere if, for example, he has turned around his IT department and now has nothing left to add. "Some CIOs are good at creating new things, but when things become stable, they get bored," says Scavo.

5. The Underpaid CIO: A CIO might start to dream about making the big bucks when he sees the fees charged by some of the consultants and advisers he's been hiring. "If he thinks he has the chops to do that, and he feels he has the experience, he can take his work elsewhere," says Scavo.

6. The Miscast CIO: Once in a while, a talented IT professional rises to the CIO's position only to realize that he's in the wrong job. That's a tough place to be. "This is a person who maybe came up from software management and came into the job through a promotion," says Scavo. "This CIO really loves the old work and its challenges [and] really wants more of a technical career." When he got the CIO's job, he was probably disappointed to learn that he had to spend most of his time managing people, not technology.

-- Todd R. Weiss

As a CIO, he didn't have that kind of autonomy, or creative freedom. "Often in the senior executive ranks, IT is viewed as a supporting role and not necessarily as a strategic role for the company. As a result, you find that your ability to play with the big boys is limited," he says.

From IT to Strategy Officer

Andres Carvallo, 51, was CIO at Austin Energy when he was named a Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leader in 2006. At the Austin-based electric utility, he helped lead the creation of one of the first smart electric grids in the nation and reported directly to the CEO during the project.

When the CEO post opened up, he threw his hat into the ring. But Carvallo later chose to withdraw when he realized he lacked mandatory experience with utility rate hearings and negotiations.

That set the wheels in motion. "I thought to myself, do I sit here and continue to polish this diamond that we have built, or do I leave and try to polish other diamonds somewhere else?"

Carvallo took a job as a chief strategy officer at Grid Net, a San Francisco company that builds software to run smart electric grids. Then, in May 2011, he joined Proximetry, a San Diego-based vendor of wireless network performance management systems.

As executive vice president for energy solutions and chief strategy officer at Proximetry, Carvallo is in charge of research, strategy planning and execution, marketing and more. "It's a huge change" from his work as a CIO, Carvallo says. "Here, I'm the expert on grids, the technology and the products. I open doors for the company and help with marketing strategy and business development."

From IT to Entrepreneur

As director of information services at Jack in the Box, Roger Zakharia was second in command to the CIO when he left in 2008, after 14 years at the fast-food company. Instead of pursuing a CIO role elsewhere, Zakharia, now 51, went into business for himself.

"The possibility of an eventual CIO role wasn't enough for me," he says. "I wanted to run businesses."

Zakharia is doing just that: He's CEO of four startups: Gocar San Diego Tours;, an online customer-feedback service for businesses; an IT consulting firm called World Technology Solutions; and Pacific Rent-A-Car.

"Business was in my blood," he says. "It was something I always wanted to explore. I wanted to get involved in businesses, not just in technology."

From IT to Consultant

CIOs need to pay attention to much more than technology, says Michael Hugos, former CIO of Network Services, a global janitorial and business supplies cooperative.

What's next for the CIO role?

Following recent news that retailer J.C. Penney eliminated the role of CIO, it's fair to ask what the future holds for the three-letter acronym that some say stands for Career Is Over. Here, ex-execs weigh in:

"Borders thought they didn't need a CIO, and you can see how well that went," says marketing consultant Cathy Hotka, referring to the now-defunct retail bookstore chain that went out of business last year after struggling for several years. "They said, 'We are booksellers; why do we need technology?'" says Hotka, principal of Cathy Hotka & Associates.

Andres Carvallo may have moved from CIO to chief strategy officer, but that doesn't mean he thinks the top IT post is outmoded. "Absolutely not," says Carvallo, of Proximetry, a wireless network performance management vendor in San Diego. "CIOs are incredibly important. The companies that don't have true technology people at the highest levels are usually getting their lunch taken away."

The sea change brought about by cloud computing is changing the role of the CIO, says ex-tech-chief Jesus Arriaga, now a consultant with CIO Strategic Solutions.

As IT departments do more with less using cloud and other services, staffs are shrinking, but "the amount of people you have in your command or supervision does not dictate how effective you are," he says. "The cloud has opened a world of opportunity to help grow a company in more strategic ways than ever before. It's forcing CIOs to re-look at what they're doing."

Beyond that, Arriaga believes the job will merge into dual roles, such as CIO/chief marketing officer or CIO/chief operating officer. "The CIO role is just as important as it has been, but now CIOs need to be technical and have that strong business background, too. Those are the ones who will be successful."

-- Todd R. Weiss

"If, as the CIO, you can work with your colleagues in marketing, sales and operations, if you can show how things can be merged and improved, you have big opportunities," says Hugos, a 2006 Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leaders honoree.

That's the kind of advice Hugos has been giving to CIOs as a consultant since he stopped working as a CIO himself. His position was cut, and he started a consulting and CIO-at-large business, the Center for Systems Innovation in Chicago. He also writes about CIOs and enterprise IT (including an occasional column for Computerworld). He's currently working on his eighth book, about IT agility.

These days, Hugos says he would rather coach CIOs than be one again. "The CIO role has changed," he says. "Things like the care and tending of hardware are not as important today because of cloud options. It really is about strategy. We are going through an acceleration of technology and societal changes that no previous time has equaled. I have empathy for what a lot of CIOs are going through."

Jesus Arriaga, 49, who served as CIO for networking vendor Spirent Communications and for auto parts vendor Keystone Automotive Industries, likewise turned to consulting instead of accepting a relocation with Keystone that wasn't to his liking.

"I had always done IT consulting between jobs, so I decided to pursue it full time," says Arriaga, a 2005 Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leaders honoree. In July 2007, he started CIO Strategic Solutions, a Glendora, Calif., firm that provides senior CIO consulting and interim CIO services to companies of all types and sizes.

"If I had to nail one thing that has been consistently different, it's that as a consultant CIO, they actually listen to you," Arriaga says. "There is something in the minds of the execs and people I help that creates an openness to listening to the recommendations I'm bringing to the table. I've enjoyed that creativity the most."

When Phil Farr opened his consultancy, Dallas-based Farr Systems, in 2006, he drew upon four years of experience as a CIO at security firm Brink's and 11 years as director of IT at the former Fina Oil and Chemical Co. Immediately after leaving Brink's, Farr, 65, ran a food company for three years and then became a CIO consultant with the Tatum professional services firm in Dallas before heading out on his own.

So why did he leave his role as a CIO?

One reason was the toll of travel. "I traveled in 54 countries for Brink's and throughout Europe for Fina," he says, whereas most of the work he does now is local or at least U.S.-based.

Beyond that, "my ambition was to be a businessperson who could run IT or any other needed part of a business," Farr says.

At Farr Systems, he and his staff of 15 offer consulting, coaching and assessment services and provide interim CIOs. "As a CIO, you see your business and your IT organization in very great detail," he explains, but you don't always have access to a wider perspective. "As a consultant, I see how CIOs have similar problems and opportunities, and I get to see some of the best and some of the worst approaches to new technologies and to new management practices."

The broader view, he says, allows him to bring many new ideas to his clients.

Wake-up Call?

These IT leaders' career paths are typical of executives who decide that something's missing from their working lives as time goes by, says Frank Scavo, president of Computer Economics, an IT research firm in Irvine, Calif.

But they can leave a void in the industries they forsake when they seek fulfillment elsewhere, Scavo says. "If some of the best CIOs are leaving to do something else, that's not a good thing" for companies that need innovative, forward-looking IT pros.

Scavo examined this issue in a report titled "Elevating the Role of the CIO." He says employers can try to stop the migration by rewarding IT leaders with fulfilling work and greater responsibilities.

If CIOs aren't rewarded with appropriate levels of work and responsibility, he says, "then I think each person will take a hard look at what they really want to do."