Is Uncle Sam your next boss? Making the move to government IT

Public-sector positions are more stable than corporate jobs, but they require patience and diplomacy. And then there's the pay problem.

As wave after wave of corporate layoffs remake the American business landscape, IT managers find themselves wondering if they should consider a personal bailout strategy of their own -- a government IT job.

Is moving from corporate America to a government agency -- local, state or federal -- a good career move? According to a cadre of IT pros who've worked in both the private and public sectors, the answer is a resounding maybe.

Although government jobs generally pay less money, they are typically safe, stable places where you can do a reasonable job, for reasonable pay and keep reasonable hours. Even if you don't plan to make a career in government, it can be a nice shelter during the economic storm, these professionals say.

But a move into government isn't necessarily easy. Aside from the pay scale, there are significant operational and cultural differences.

While public-sector IT managers say they are getting a breadth of experience that's hard to find in the private sector and that public service can be uniquely fulfilling, government IT also requires a patient, persistent and diplomatic temperament that's less in demand in the corporate world.

So should a government IT job be part of your personal rescue strategy? Read on for our experts' take on what to expect from the public sector.

Your stress level will go down, but so will your pay

Several IT managers who worked in the private sector for many years say they moved into government because they had grown tired of the long hours and constant travel of the corporate rat race. Another left government briefly for the corporate world but soon returned. It was all about a better quality of life and work-family balance.

Steve Reneker, CIO, Riverside, Calif.
Steve Reneker, CIO, Riverside, Calif.: "The money isn't as important as the quality of life."

After 10 years at General Motors Corp., the last 11 months of which he spent integrating the IT systems of six marketing divisions, "I was fried. Absolutely fried," says Ken Theis, now CIO for the state of Michigan. "GM was good to me, but like a lot of corporations, they'll take every ounce and then 10% more."

As a member of the sandwich generation, with young kids and elderly parents to care for, Theis needed a job that allowed more time for family. He joined the state's IT department in 1999 and was named CIO in 2007. He now oversees 1,700 people and has an annual budget of $433 million.

Steve Reneker had spent his entire career in government, but left his job as CIO of the California county of Riverside in 2003 to take a job with Dell Inc. as business development manager for public safety and criminal justice.

He thought experience in the private sector would round out his career, and the money was good. But the job required much more travel than he had expected -- about 90% of his time was on the road.

Which is why, less than two years later, Reneker returned to the public sector, accepting the CIO job in his hometown of Riverside, Calif. The pay was only 60% of what he'd made at Dell.

Boston CIO Bill Oates
City of Boston CIO Bill Oates: A call to service prompted his move from private to public sector.

"It was a hard decision, but at that point, the money wasn't as important as quality of life," he says.

Indeed, most of the CIOs interviewed said they took substantial pay cuts when they moved to government, although few would share hard numbers. "Let's just say I didn't take this job for the money," says Brenda Orth, who joined Pennsylvania's IT department in 2003 after a 20-year career at ExxonMobil Corp. She was promoted to the position of CIO of the commonwealth in 2008.

Money likewise wasn't a driver for Bill Oates, Boston's CIO. What did interest him was the opportunity for public service. Before and during his 20 years in the hospitality industry, most recently as CIO at Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc., Oates had served in local government posts. For example, he was a member of the school committee in his hometown of Watertown, Mass.

When Boston Mayor Thomas Menino was looking for a CIO for the city in 2006, Oates was drawn to the position because it would allow him to combine his technical skills with his avocation.

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