Job-hopping has always been the way to get ahead in IT. But in today's slow job market, IT professionals could use some lessons in staying happy while staying right where they are.
Linda Burkett was at her company for 25 years before she seriously thought about leaving. She hadn't joined Bergen Drug Co. with long-term plans. In 1969, with her college degree in hand, she joined as a file clerk simply because that was the best shot a woman had to break into the male-dominated computer room. She was able to steadily move up within the growing pharmaceutical distribution company, so it wasn't until 1994 that Burkett, by that time VP of IS, started to become disenchanted and feel she deserved a more-competitive salary. "I went outside to see what I should be getting paid," Burkett says.
Burkett submitted her resignation to take another job and quickly learned how much the company, then called Bergen Brunswig, wanted her to stay. The chairman told her that the company had a big role ahead for IT and, by extension, her. She reconsidered, got a raise, and 14 months later, she was named CIO. Following Bergen Brunswig's merger last August with Amerisource Healthcare Corp., she's now CIO of AmerisourceBergen Corp., a $36-billion-a-year company in Valley Forge, Pa.
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Burkett's decision to stay put is notable in a profession in which long tenure is the exception, not the rule. Job hopping, even a lateral move, can offer a fast way to learn new IT and management skills. Then there's salary. As much as companies vow to retain their best people, the reality is that it's a whole lot easier to get a pay hike from a job interview than a salary review. InformationWeek Research's annual salary survey, conducted last spring, found that CIOs in their first year of a job make 16% more than those who've been at the same job for more than a year. Those with four years or more at the same job make 6% less than those with shorter tenures. So people who have stayed at a company for a decade or more often are looked upon with suspicion: If you're so good, why haven't you found a better job?
Not long ago, staying put was considered career suicide. But the economy is forcing some people-especially those burned in dot-com flameouts-to think more favorably about long-term employment. Even those still addicted to job changes may have to hunker down for awhile, since IT workers, from CIOs to systems analysts, have fewer opportunities these days. That makes it a good time to learn from those who've built great careers without jumping around.
The good news is it can be done. Dawn Lepore has been with brokerage firm Charles Schwab & Co. in San Francisco for 19 years, rising to a boardroom seat as vice chairman of technology and administration and a place among America's business elite. The bad news is, longevity isn't its own reward. People like Lepore aren't gold-watch types by nature, and they're the first to recommend that someone jump ship if they're not being challenged or fairly paid. But if there's a common theme, it's that they've been able to create opportunities at a single company in part by focusing on rewards beyond money, blending emotion, camaraderie, and technical challenge. Lepore naturally wondered in recent years if she should move for more money and the bigger titles she was offered from Internet startups but says she never found anything as compelling as her work at Schwab. She could see how she was making a difference at the company and how the company makes a difference in people's lives. "People will give a lot of themselves for meaning-more than they will for money," she says.
For IT people, meaning often depends on how innovative a company is in its use of technology. Technological change has helped to keep Burkett interested during her 33 years at the same company. When she started at Bergen, it was one of the first health-care companies to use an IBM mainframe, and senior management pushed technology as a solution to business problems. In the early 1970s, then-chairman Emil Martini was frustrated at errors in the company's order-taking process, which involved scores of clerks taking orders over the phone and keying the quantities into punch cards that were fed into mainframes. He walked into a meeting that Burkett was attending with her superiors, and said, "There has to be a way to put things into the computer electronically. I'll give you a million dollars and a year to do that." Then he left the room.
Burkett and her colleagues developed an early type of bar-code scanning system, and a few years later, they made Bergen one of the first companies to push for electronic data interchange. Management approved practically every new use of technology Burkett and her group could dream of. That has kept Burkett motivated, as the company has moved from crude EDI to sophisticated Internet applications. "If I felt that the newest technology wouldn't get accepted, that we would have got stagnant, then I would have moved on," Burkett says.
Buckley stayed at Vanguard because he felt he would have more influence in the Internet revolution with an established company
Still, managers who are content with their pay, colleagues, and challenges need to ask themselves: Am I a bit too comfortable? Those same relationships that make people feel good about their jobs may keep them from stretching to pursue new experiences. "There's a danger that you get stale and myopic," Lepore warns. "You're working with many of the same people, and you're doing the same things." Lepore tries to stay fresh by reaching outside the company-talking to CEOs of key technology vendors and sitting on corporate boards, including those of eBay, Times-Mirror, and Wal-Mart.
Those keeping less-exalted company can take a similar approach. Bob Tolbert, CIO of Houston's Lyondell Chemical Co., sends staff members to IT and petroleum-industry conferences to brush up on current trends. Burkett has her staff benchmark AmerisourceBergen against the competition to search for ways to bring in new technology.
Another challenge can be moving outside of IT, a leap that's easier to make within a company, contends Tolbert, who has spent more than two decades with his employer. Tolbert started in 1977 as a systems analyst for Atlantic Richfield Co., gradually making his way into its Arco Chemicals business, which was acquired by Lyondell. Along the way, he slipped out of IT and into a pure business function for almost a decade as VP of finance for Arco Products and auditor for the parent company.
Tolbert doubts another company would have hired him to work outside IT, and he considers his business background vital to his job as CIO. He encourages his staff to seek varied assignments as well-from programming to project management, from database administration to supply-chain or customer-service roles. That was Tolbert's answer for staying energized at one company. "I didn't take that narrow path of being a technology specialist and was willing to try something different," he says, adding that most of Lyondell's senior IT execs took similarly diverse paths.
Business-IT crossover also can happen informally. Bill Smithson, VP of IT services at Matcom Inc., an Alexandria, Va., company that builds custom applications for government agencies, has been with Matcom for 11 years, and spent 10 years before that with Matcom's president, Lou Ray, at another company. If an IT manager spends years at a company, other executives will be more likely to ask him to join the critical meetings where strategy is hammered out. As Matcom grew from $10 million in annual revenue to more than $85 million, Smithson participated in every part of the company's business and IT operations. "If you bounce around, you're just filling a body-shop role," Smithson says. "Nobody really knows anything about you other than that you worked on Project X."
Long-serving CIOs say the relationships they've built aren't only rewarding but help get projects done. Vanguard's Buckley credits the experience he and other IT staff have at the company for the department's ability to solve problems. Case in point: When Vanguard launched a retail Web site in mid-2001, customers weren't using most of the features. So business and IT got together to figure out why, and resolved more than 80% of the problems within a month. People who've been with Vanguard a while "understand the goals and values of the company," he says. "You can't just jump into the company and expect to pick it up."
Schwab's Lepore describes the credibility built up over the years as a bank account that she can draw on for big projects. "When you have credibility, you feel a little more comfortable taking risks," she says. "If you fall flat, you have a track record to fall back on." Yet Lepore is a realist-fall flat enough, or big enough, and it can be tough to shake the past, so there's no substitute for success. "It's hard to reinvent yourself in front of people who know you well," she says.
Long-tenured CIOs say they didn't come to a company expecting to stay for a decade or more. InformationWeek Research's annual salary survey shows that CIOs typically have been at their job four years and expect to stay for three more. But if there's a common ingredient to the experiences of long-term CIOs, it can be summed up with one word: growth. Landing with a company that's growing, internally or by acquisition, creates the kind of challenges these executives thrive on.
Rob Cohen loves change. Sounds peculiar, perhaps, for someone who's been at the same company for nearly 10 years. But the CIO of AstraZeneca LP started with the pharmaceutical company as the second IT worker at Astra Merck, a tiny joint venture between Astra and Merck. Since then, he's led its IT group through multiple mergers, and London's AstraZeneca is now a global conglomerate.
The desire for change and fresh ideas means that even long-serving CIOs are a bit ambivalent about the importance of tenure. Naturally, they want a measure of stability and to keep their best staff. But few rank potential for longevity as a major criterion in hiring or promoting IT staff. A little turnover is good, AstraZeneca's Cohen says. "It helps to have fresh ideas coming in," he says. Schwab's Lepore says people need to manage their own careers and can't be afraid to jump if they can't change a situation that's holding them back.
Matcom's Smithson uses his staff's experience as a selling point when vying to build applications for potential clients. He tries to promote from within, and he hires people who look like they have the potential for longevity rather than the latest hot skills. However, he expects employees to take a large measure of responsibility for how their jobs unfold. "A lot of times, you get stuck in a job because you let yourself do so, and stagnation sets in," he says. "You have to keep bucking for change." IT workers too often assume that their managers know what they want or that the managers will look out for them. Smithson himself builds his skills by learning new applications and taking on projects that lie just a bit beyond his experience. "I'm always asking for something that's a little bit of the impossible," he says.
Despite the benefits that can come from a long tenure, there's a reason we're still quoting "The Road Not Taken" 50 years after Robert Frost penned it. Wonder about the jobs not accepted, the corporate cultures unexplored, the signing bonuses not cashed leave long-term IT employees with a fear that others are passing them by or learning skills that they aren't. All the executives in this story were tempted by the entrepreneurial spirit and the ground-breaking nature of the Internet boom and by the opportunity to have even more management control. What kept them back was the idea that a startup wasn't the only way-or, in fact, the best way-to take on the Internet. Vanguard's Buckley had the clients, the colleagues, and the technology budget-almost half of Vanguard's total operating budget-that startups only dreamed of. "I felt that I could have a bigger impact here with the Internet revolution than I would as a dot-commer," he says.
The economy is tempering the job-hopping fever for now, and the allure of a steady paycheck is a little stronger. Each of the senior execs interviewed for this story had a dot-com suitor that no longer exists, and starting salaries and job offers have leveled off. But that won't last. A recent survey by online recruiter ExecuNet.com shows that almost three-quarters of the 238 executives it interviewed expect the job market to improve this year. That may bring back all the same questions of whether staying put is worth passing up the adventure and, most likely, financial rewards of leaving. Those who don't job-hop say "it's more important... to have a stable environment and interesting work than stock options," says Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of RHI Consulting Inc., an IT placement firm.
Burkett started as a file clerk at Bergen; she's now CIO of the $36-billion-a-year company
IT workers certainly have fewer opportunities than they did 18 months ago, and more than a few may feel trapped in dead-end jobs. These longtime executives would be the first to advise those workers to get out when they can. But they also provide proof that even once the economy swings back to growth, it's possible to stay put and stay happy.
Photo of Buckley by Bill Cramer
Photo of Burkett by John Faulkner