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Have you been toying with the idea of a new IT career path? Julia Vowler talks to former IT chiefs who have found success by...

Have you been toying with the idea of a new IT career path? Julia Vowler talks to former IT chiefs who have found success by transferring their skills into other areas

Elite chairman, David Rippon's comment that "There are currently more IT directors out of work than has ever been the case before," is not the sort of thing you want to hear in the festive season - or any other. But there is a world beyond the IT department - and it does not have to entail temping as Father Christmas.

Mike Winch, supplier
Former IT director at Safeway Mike Winch crossed the floor into IT supply just over two years ago. He is now director of logistics and fulfilment software company, Metapack.

Winch has kept to his subject specialism - the exploitation of IT for business advantage in a retail environment. As a former user, he says, he brings to the supply side "an understanding of what really makes a difference in business", rather than suppliers saying they can answer your problems with software

He also knows how retailers think and work from the inside and has 17 years' worth of contacts. "Networking does help," he says, "But people move on, so you need to make more contacts."

Compared with running IT at Safeway, "The big difference is that I can see a much wider spectrum of businesses. But I do miss being as emotionally involved as I was at Safeway, and I miss the teams of support staff.

"But I could not go back [to being a user]. I have been there and done that, and now I can pick and choose." It is no tougher being a supplier. "The reality of plc life is that you have to deliver bottom line results," he says.

Winch believes those best suited to life in IT supply need to be more extrovert and less technical. "There are a lot of good technical people [working for IT suppliers]. But you need to bring a business focus, not knowledge of a latest release of technology," he says.

"Do you have the confidence, the vision, the belief in how a solution can be applied? Can you communicate well and work without teams of support staff?" These are the questions IT directors must ask themselves. "You can make a lot of money as an IT supplier, no question," says Winch. "But it is a matter of lifestyle. You cannot do it just for the money - you have to like what you do."

David Rippon, academic
Former head of IT at commercial property management company Land Securities, David Rippon is now visiting professor of IT infrastructure management at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College.

"I am bringing 30 years of experience [in applied computing] to people researching computing," says Rippon.

However, in some ways there is no difference from running corporate IT, he says. "I am running a research centre so I need a business plan about what we will produce - students - and to show where the income is coming from, what I will spend and what my outcomes will be."

His corporate background comes in useful for dealing with the university's finance and personnel departments and so on, as well as other colleagues.

"I find I can communicate better across functional silos, and can live within budgets and plans, an experience you do not always pick up as an academic alone," says Rippon.

His business background also helps when it comes to obtaining research funding from local businesses, as Rippon can speak their language.

But unlike in corporate life where IT is a service cost, his current job is wealth generation for the university. "We bring the students in," he points out.

To thrive in academia, says Rippon, "You need to be open to new ideas and willing to show your work under peer review.

"Most IT directors are content in their silos and not willing to learn and share, nor take the initiative very publicly and make their results known.

"Only go into academia if you are naturally curious, and are prepared to do something new, share knowledge, stand up and speak, and publish," he says.

"Do not assume it is an easy life or that you will not have to bring in money [to the university]. Do not assume that you will earn as much as in corporate IT. A top-end lecturer gets about £30,000 a year, a professor about £40,000."

The best aspect of academia, says Rippon, is that you have much much more freedom. "I can nominate my own areas of research in applied IT, and I get seven weeks pro rata leave."

The worst aspects? "No question about it - pay and conditions."

Steve Winslade, legal mediator
Steve Winslade has had a highly varied career, as a police officer in Hong Kong; air force officer; and consultant at PA, as well as managing multimillion-pound IT programmes. He is now a legal mediator.

"A friend suggested it when I left PA," says Winslade. "I did a course for £2,000, the accreditation assessment for £700, and then pupillage to join a panel of mediators."

Legal mediation is one step before arbitration. His task is to get opposing sides to reach agreement voluntarily. Although mediation is still new, there are increasing numbers of IT disputes where knowledge of the industry is an asset.

While the amount of work is limited at present, success rates are high: "80% of those going to mediation reach a settlement," he says, and because it costs only a few thousand pounds, compared with the hundreds of thousands to go to court, the prospects are good.

Not all his cases are between unhappy ITusers and suppliers. "My technical knowledge is useful, but the real skills I need are people skills. You are not making decisions - even when one side is obviously wrong. You are facilitating. You need to be able to talk, and reason, and move people in a common direction - but they must own the solution themselves. It is like requirements analysis in IT, where the business has to own the solution.

"You need to be good at listening, and not jumping to conclusions. Teaching IT is good experience - finding another way of explaining something if one student gets stuck."

The best thing about the work, says Winslade, is serving the community. "You can mix and match it with consultancy, and there is no retirement age. You can also move on to become an arbitrator. It is not as well paid as corporate IT - you get less than half the IT rates. But it is good for your portfolio."

Colin Beveridge, interim manager
Interim management can be seen as an ideal half-way-house between being in or out of corporate IT.

To thrive as an interim manager, says Colin Beveridge, you need flexibility, experience, and ability to assess a situation quickly and take positive action. "But knowing when not to do something is as important," he says.

"You need to understand the brief: are you there to stir things up or be a safe pair of hands?"

The difference from normal management is that you seldom see the fulfilment of what you do. But, reminds Beveridge, you have to behave as if you will. "You have to 'think permanent' and 'act interim'. If you had to live with the consequences could you do so?

"You need to have sufficient presence to command respect quickly, hit the ground running and carry on as if you were permanent. You have to be able to act the part and immerse yourself completely - there can be a bit of play acting."

But some people are not suited to interim management, such as people who need security, says Beveridge. "People who like too much routine, who do not like a lot of travel. It can be disruptive for family life.

"The best aspects are the variety and the breadth of experience you can gain in an relatively short time by picking up the best of what you see. The worst are that you can be the whipping-boy for 360 degrees of the organisation."

Some remits are tough to execute. "Disbanding an IT department is not popular," he says. In some posts there has been open warfare, with staff refusing to speak to one another, he recalls.

In bullish times, you can make money, says Beveridge. "Potentially it is extremely lucrative, paying about twice as much as permanent work. If a permanent IT director gets, say, £70,000 a year, an interim could get £140,000."

But postings do not last for ever. "You need to have a backfill for the slack periods," says Beveridge, and you will need to tussle with the joys of IR35.

In tough times, like now, with companies pulling back on spending and exporting headcount, it is a buyers market, warns Beveridge. "Rates have collapsed. Eighteen months ago you could expect between £750 and £1,500 a day. Now, due to the sheer number of good people in the market, rates are 50% down. The premium is gone.

"You will need to register with a good intermediary, watch the Internet bulletin boards, and have a portfolio approach to keep sufficient paid activity," he says.

John Mahoney, analyst
Formerly IT director at the British Library, John Mahoney is now a research vice-president at Gartner.

"The nature of the job is different [from being IT director] in specifics, but I do not see it as a step-change in my career," says Mahoney, "because as a chief information officer and member of the executive board I was dealing with leadership and strategic issues, and I am dealing with those issues here.

"I am not running a business but I am working with other people in providing advice about the use of business technology. I can now leverage my industry expertise and insight to address a broader canvas."

But however closely he works with clients, one of the principle differences is that the absence of staff management and leadership accountability. "I do miss that because it is very satisfying to work with a team and help them," he says.

"At Gartner I have to be adept at dealing with issues in much shorter soundbites, and have to focus and deliver within crisp timescales. That is enjoyable because it helps me to see results and grow personally."

Compared with in-house leadership, as an analyst you have to be able to let go, and be prepared to be self-effacing and not take the spotlight from the client, he says. "You have to be able to demonstrate and sell your capabilities across a wide variety of clients, and build recognition very quickly. You have to make a mark early on, and demonstrate that you have the appropriate level of capability."

One unexpected pleasure of working for Gartner has been, "looking again at my life-work balance," says Mahoney. "I am working harder than ever - and I was not taking life easy before. Gartner is a global, virtual organisation, so although I have spent about 60% of the past year travelling out of the UK, the reward is that I can also work from my holiday home in Devon as well."

Not everyone would suit life as an analyst, however. "It is not suitable for people who like having direct and visible authority and power, or who are seeking to develop their expertise," says Mahoney. Analysts are, after all, expected to know more than their clients.

Roger Ellis, consultant and conference organiser
Former IT director at Blue Circle, Roger Ellis now runs consulting firm Black Raven.

"We are former FTSE 100 IT directors; we are not theorists or straight out of management training; we have a wealth of experience at senior level," says Ellis.

"Our work is usually overseeing projects, or mentoring other IT directors, but I have also worked with suppliers who do not know the right thing to say to IT directors and try and sell 'solutions' for problems they do not have.

"Consultancy cannot be for everyone," he warns, but those who have run IT at FTSE 100 companies will be articulate, able to talk to all levels of the organisation, able to see the bigger picture, and have the ability to sell. When you have been an IT director of a large organisation you do not do it by command, you have to sell yourself and your function to your peers, who do not have to use you or trust you."

Consulting is not, he points out, for "DP managers who are good at running their teams and getting projects done".

Confidence is important, as well as the right level of expertise, both for yourself and your clients. "You have to sound convincing and give a good account, and be prepared to listen," says Ellis.

Networking is crucial. "You cannot operate by yourself, you need to keep on the circuit, which is 10 times more difficult on your own. I set up a six-weekly club at the Institute of Directors. You need to keep yourself visible and up to date, and look the part.

"The best aspect of being a consultant is your degree of independence. Within reason I can decide who I work for, and when. It is great working with people and understanding their problems. The worst is that you do not belong any more: there is no coffee machine gossip," says Ellis.

You have to set yourself up as a legal business entity, without the support of a corporate personnel, finance or legal department, he warns.

As for earnings, "You have to be flexible," says Ellis. "It is not an easy market now. But you should expect between £800 and £1,500 a day, though it is no good saying you deserve the top rate if the company cannot pay it and it means you are not working five days a week. But you should turn down under £500 a day."

Black Raven also runs conferences, with the first, IT Governance for IT Leaders, coming up in the new year. To survive on the crowded conference circuit and in tough times Ellis is running conferences four times a year, "targeting a niche market with absolutely topical subjects and high-level speakers," he says.

"You need to know a lot of people and have a clear marketing campaign. You have got to be clear on your topics and be able to get speakers. It takes a lot of selling and cold-calling.

"You can make money at it and there are rewards to be had, but you can also risk losing the initial outlay - you have to be prepared to gamble," he says.

Rene Carayol, industry guru
Rene Carayol used to be IT director at IPC magazines. Now he is an industry guru. He says his defining moment in making the transition came when he joined the board. "I was turned on by the day-to-day running of the business. It is only when you get to the board that you understand strategy, what making money really means.

"Being an IT director is a very limiting role," he says. "You get to the board with your functional expertise and find it is irrelevant. You have to own a profit-and-loss account. IT does not take you into the commercial world."

Carayol moved into that commercial world when he headed IPC's early ventures into electronic publishing, and his elevation to guru status came in 1999 when he spoke at the CBI to 300 chief executives of UK companies at the conference where Tony Blair declared the UK "open for e-business".

Seeing that few of the chief executives understood the Internet, "I turned off my slides and spoke for 40 minutes about why e-business was important. It went down a storm," he says. Now he has his own platform, writes books, such as Corporate Voodoo, and is non-executive director of several firms.

Being a guru is not for the shy or the habit-bound, he says. "I love innovation. I am a story-teller," says Carayol. "You have to love being on a stage, being given an opportunity to perform, but you must have something to contribute." He cultivates a "virtuous circle", being invited to give companies a push which then gives him the insights and examples he needs to illustrate his presentations.

"Chief executives love contemporary case studies," he says. But do not give too much, they won't retain the message. It's 60% image, 30% delivery and 10% content: 90% content would be 'death by Powerpoint'."

The downside of guru status, says Carayol, is that it is lonely. "I miss the tribalism part of corporate life." The upside is, "It's the most exciting role I've ever had."

As for remuneration, "I am a brand, and I am 'reassuringly expensive'."

That was a lesson he learned the hard way. He spoke at the CBI conference for free, and at his own expense, then he discovered other speakers were getting £30,000, Concord tickets and two weeks at Claridges.

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