In June of 2007, I retired from IBM, where I had worked ever since completing my studies at the University of Chicago in 1970. A number of friends and colleagues who are themselves contemplating retirement have asked me about my experiences. So, let me please share what the first three years of my post-retirement life have been like.I am no longer working full time in any one institution, but I also did not retire in the sense of not working at all. I am still quite involved in a number of matters related to technology and business, but I am now doing so by working part-time with a few different institutions. Roughly speaking, two thirds of my work is spent consulting on innovation and technical strategy, primarily with IBM and Citigroup, but now and then with other companies as well. A quarter of my time is spent with universities, primarily MIT, Imperial College and SUNY’s Levin Institute. The remaining time is spent in various other activities, including boards and government panels.
After 37 years of working full time for one company, I very much enjoy this new phase which I think of as distributed work, - being associated with several institutions instead of one primary one. I particularly like the fact that I am now able to spend much more time with universities, in addition to continuing to be involved in business. At this stage in my life, it feels right for me to have one foot in the private sector and one in academia, while also advising government as appropriate.
This kind of flexible, distributed work model is one that I believe we will increasingly see, not just in the post-retirement phase of one’s career, as is the case with me, but throughout the careers of many so-called knowledge workers, that is, those “individuals who are valued for their ability to interpret information within a specific subject area,” - in analysis, design, research, strategy and development.
I think we will see more and more people going back and forth between working full time for one company, and being involved with several companies as self-employed consultants, depending on what is going on in the job market and in their personal lives. As this recent Newsweek article points out: “America has always been a mobile society, with a labor market that grows more fluid over time. Once, the norm was to work for a single employer for one's entire career. Today, people change jobs an average of 11 times before they reach 40.”So far, the biggest difference between my previous full-time job and my present distributed work existence is the degree of day-to-day operational responsibility. For years I held a number of general management positions at IBM, which involved dealing with market strategies, technical development, financial results, personnel, etc. A major part of a general management positions involves dealing with and making decisions about issues almost every day, - many small, some large. Even in the last few years at IBM, when I no longer held such operational positions, I still had significant, more staff-oriented responsibilities as a senior executive of the company.
The situation is clearly different when you are no longer working full time for one institution. As a consultant, - “a professional who provides advice in a particular area of expertise,” - I am intrinsically in a very different position, which I am still adjusting to. In the last few years, for example, I have been very involved in helping to organize major initiatives I care a lot about, like cloud computing at IBM and digital money at Citigroup. But, as I am learning, helping to organize is different from leading in organizing as I did with supercomputing, the Internet, Linux and other initiatives for which I was the general manager.
I very much enjoy teaching and giving seminars at the various universities I am affiliated with. At MIT, for example, I taught a graduate course on Technology-based Business Transformation in the Fall of 2007 and 2008, and this coming Fall I will be teaching a half-semester course on Technology and Innovation in the Service Economy. While the distance makes it impractical to teach a full semester course, I go to London several times a year to lecture and participate in other activities at Imperial College. I try to be as engaged as possible with the universities I work with, but I have to be sensitive to the limits inherent in a part-time, visiting faculty position.
One of the benefits of my post-retirement life is the freedom I now have to get involved in, and think about all kinds of new problems that interest me. I have learned a huge amount from colleagues at Citi about banking, payments and financial systems in general. I have become quite interested in economic issues, probably as I have tried to understand the causes of the financial crisis and how so many of the best and brightest could have been so wrong.
At the Levin Institute, I have been exploring how to help make the New York region a global center of innovation in the 21st century. And, I have spent considerable time thinking about education, in particular how engineering and business and management schools need to evolve to better prepare students for the global, information and service economy of the 21st century.
I don’t miss not having a main office to go to at all. I enjoy working from my home office when I don’t have to attend meetings in person. It is very efficient to conduct meetings from home via conference call, as so many are these days, since I don’t have to then spend time in unnecessary travel. Plus, given the easy availability of Internet access, computers, printers, scanners, etc, - I have just about everything I need in my own home office.But, I now spend a considerable amount of time in administrative tasks, - like managing my calendar, scheduling trips and filling out travel expense forms. I miss my incredibly capable administrative assistant – Julie Nielsen – who so professionally managed all aspects of my office for over eighteen years and who retired at the same time I did. Handling these administrative tasks by myself would have been much more difficult just a few short years ago. If it weren’t for the Web, e-mail, online calendars, mobile devices, and the like it would be practically impossible for me to keep track of, let alone manage all the various activities in my distributed life.
I also now put together my own presentations and talks, and do my own slides, sometimes asking colleagues for permission to use one of their slides I particularly like. I terribly miss my friend and partner Marty Reilly, who so capably helped me with speeches, presentations, writings and how to best frame a new idea in general. Marty died in May of 2007, just as I was retiring from IBM.
If five years ago, someone had asked me to describe how I envisioned my post-retirement life, I think I would have mentioned consulting for private sector companies and teaching part-time at universities, not unlike what I am doing now. But I would have never predicted the central role that blogging has come to play in my life. This has been my biggest surprise of the past few years.
Blogging adds a significant degree of structure to my fairly eclectic life. Given the different institutions I work with, my calendar looks very different from day to day and week to week. But the one constant is my weekly blog, which I have been writing since May of 2005. Writing and editing each post consumes quite a number of hours each week, let alone the time it takes to think what to write about and how to best frame the subject. In the end, blogging has provided a sense of continuity to my otherwise, somewhat varied and unstructured professional life.
When I first wrote about my upcoming retirement in January of 2007, my parting words were: “I am quite excited to see what shape this next stage of my life will take.” These same parting words continue to feel right, now three years into the post-retirement phase of my life.