Life after IT: When CIOs leave at the top of their game

What do you do after reaching the pinnacle of IT management? If you're like these CIOs, you leave. Here's where they went, and why.

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Great CIOs and IT executives help drive their companies through innovation and agile management. They nurture their employees, build talented teams and generate creativity in their people. They try new things and improve upon the old. 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 last several years have seen an anecdotal uptick in the phenomenon of talented and visionary CIOs leaving their posts. Some head up the corporate ladder to even higher positions or take line-of-business posts, while others strike out on their own, becoming consultants or Web entrepreneurs.

Given that several such CIOs are past winners of Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders award, which attests to their skill and expertise, it's fair to ask: Are these departures a natural progression for talented executives, or do they say something troubling about the working environment of enterprise IT?

Read on to hear from six former CIOs who exited from the top, and be sure to peruse consultant Frank Scavo's list of six CIO types that are a particular flight risk.

From IT to operations

"There are different types of CIOs," says Bryan J. Timm. "I am 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 the CIO at Guess.

Bryan J. Timm
Bryan J. Timm

"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."

As a CIO, he didn't have that kind of autonomy, or creativity, he says. "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."

From IT to strategy officer

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

Andres Carvallo
Andres Carvallo

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

The event 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 with Grid Net, a San Francisco company that builds software to run smart electric utility grids. Then, last May, he went to work for San Diego-based Proximetry, a wireless network performance management vendor.

As executive vice president for energy solutions and chief strategy officer, 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."

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