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When your CIO career ends, what comes next?

Ron Maillette is on his third CIO job since his retirement in 2002 from The Coca-Cola Co., where he ran IT for Coke’s food service and hospitality division, its largest standalone unit. Don’t tell him the CIO career is a young person’s game.

“Each position was as a CIO where the company was looking for leadership to create a growth strategy. I turn 65 this year, with no end in sight for employment opportunities,” Ron emailed me yesterday.

He was writing in response to my story this week on CIOs and age discrimination, a look at whether the CIO career is more vulnerable to ageism than other C-suite roles.

As might be expected with such a fraught issue, the reality is not given to simple answers. But it’s probably fair to say that IT executives come to the end of their CIO careers before they reach Ron’s age. Technology changes fast, the role constantly evolves, the revolving door still spins faster for CIOs than for other occupants of the C-suite: All these things conspire against a CIO career that extends into one’s twilight years.

If you are 55 or 60 years old and have the bad luck to be on the job market — especially this job market — “chances are diminished for finding a CIO job,” said Jerry Luftman, a professor of IT management and executive director of the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N. J. Most CIOs in that position became consultants. The good news is that they are in high demand, he said. The Big Five consulting companies go after the Fortune 500 CIOs, or “magnets,” to capitalize on their large networks for snagging new clients. And the smaller consulting firms court CIOs from smaller companies to serve as mentors to their clients.

Nothing wrong with that, but it was nice to hear from someone like Ron, whose CIO career path certainly did not dead-end at age 55 or 60, and who has bypassed the consultancy route. From Coke, he went to work at Pacer Global Logistics, a large freight transportation and logistics business, and from there to NuCO2, a carbon dioxide gas distributor. Today he’s CIO of Education Corporation of America, an operator of private accredited colleges across the United States. I took a peek at his photo on the website and saw the Ron I met five years ago when he was at Pacer, only grayer on top and with a snow-white moustache.

“One thing I might add,” Ron wrote, “is that if you are a gray-hair, you are not only less vulnerable to repeat the same mistakes, but you are also better positioned to understand what new thing is old and vice versa.” Take VDI [virtual desktop infrastructure]. He jumped on that innovation early because of his experience with the dumb terminals of the ’70s and early ’80s, he said. “We just have a lot smarter ‘terminal’ now and we can manage it with a lot less resources.” It was obvious to an older CIO like himself that VDI was the “best of both worlds.”

Experience counts, he was telling me, just as it does in other C-suite positions. Maybe the real question for older CIOs, he said, is what one’s experience represents. “Is it one year on the job repeated 30 times? Or do we continually learn, embrace, grow; learn, embrace, grow … ?”