When Murray Foster could no longer "be bothered with the politics and pressure" of working for a vendor in Wellington, his answer was a simpler life in the country. Foster, originally from Gisborne, settled in Thames a year ago, where he is now IS manager for Thames-Coromandel District Council.
Peter Mayle's book A Year in Provence inspired Wellington-based Kirsty Martin to seek a more enriching life. She found it in Queenstown after touring New Zealand on a motorbike.
The two are part of a growing band of IT leaders who are eschewing the city for the 'lifestyle' or 'seachange' centres of New Zealand.
High housing costs, long daily traffic jams, or maybe just a feeling of living to work rather than working to live are leading IT executives to reconsider their career options.
While some may feel they are getting out of the 'rat race', others say equally challenging work can be found in provincial New Zealand, and they need not suffer financially.
Indeed, IT executives tell MIS their salaries go further, so a lifestyle block with animals is possible, and they can actively engage in sports like surfing, hunting, fishing, tramping and boating.
But the country life can present a new set of challenges, from having to work on a wider role, to isolation from other IT leaders, industry trends and training.
What matters most
For Foster, it is simply understanding what are your priorities in both career and personal life. The IS manager of the Thames-Coromandel District Council (TCDC) worked previously at Unisys, where he built up an application support service, employing 140 staff. When he first considered the TCDC job, he felt the pay was too little, and accepted another position in a Wellington business.
There, he discovered, "the job was killing me and it made me rethink why I was there".
By then, TCDC offered a raise from his previous salary to help fill the vacancy, so Foster went to Thames. But despite what he says was a "significant drop" in salary, the 42-year-old still believes the move is "the best thing I have ever made".
"You have to understand what you want out of life. You are giving up the energy and good stress. I (now) work eight to five, I can go home for lunch or be by the beach. I have a lifestyle block and enjoy swimming and fishing.
"For a long time, you end up comparing salaries and it takes a while to come to grips that you have taken a step down, from handling multimillion dollar budgets to the constrained budgets of local authorities and we are watched very closely. It is very constraining at first but after a while you sink into it," he says.
Foster says country employers use "lifestyle" to their advantage, but TCDC accepts if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. His role is now more strategic and the council now pays more and recruits higher calibre people.
"You (also) rely on yourself more and there's nowhere to hide if it goes wrong," he says.
The upside? He no longer lays awake worrying about the next deal and writing RFIPs late at night.
Big fish - little pond
After 11 years, Kirsty Martin "absolutely loves" Queenstown, where she is MIS manager at Queenstown-Lakes District Council. "It's a very vibrant and exciting town. We have taken to resort town life very easily - we enjoy mountain biking, some four-wheel driving and travelling. We enjoy the café and bar culture here," says Martin.
She reckons the work is better too. There is, she says, "the chance to be a big fish in a little pond, the ability to see the results of changes you make and not be buried in big bureaucracy, the opportunity to make those changes, the chance to try your hand at anything".
Pay is less because her role could easily be filled, but council salaries also reflect national guidelines. However, exploding housing and other costs often makes it hard for some incomers, who often leave if their partners cannot find work.
"(However) our success has been able to achieve that work/life balance," she says.
Queenstown firms typically outsource their IT work or it is handled by head office in the city, but Martin believes she must cover more ground than she would otherwise. "We get to exercise our creative and innovative talents, as we can't drive across town to the local branch of Unisys or whoever for support. We need to be ready to cope for a few days on our own in case of disaster."
Suppliers also fail to realise that same day support may be impossible, particularly with Queenstown being six hours away by car from Christchurch. Training costs are also higher because travel to larger cities may be necessary.
But "the internet is fantastic and a lifesaver", says Martin. It helps her keep in touch with other IT leaders, adding emerging technologies, like broadband or GIS mapping, are often adopted early to overcome isolation. "In this regard, we are driven to keep certain skills up to date as much as anyone else."
For Mark Lovell, now network administrator at Real Journeys, Te Anau just "felt right". "Looking around at the lakes, bush and mountains, it was just breathtaking scenery, and the township had everything we need," says Lovell. Well, everything except work, a cinema and a good curry house. But Lovell found a job in the town with one of the country's largest tourism operators - and recently a cinema opened!
Lovell is "happy to accept less money to work here", so after selling his Christchurch house, he is now building a home on a newly-purchased section.
His role is more varied, covering "top level IT decision-making, right through to end user support".
Computerland in Invercargill helps with server support and procurement issues, and its regular BizGo seminars keep him up-to-date on industry issues.
Country life also means more community-related activities such as a big role in the local shooting club, plus hunting and tramping pursuits, adds Lovell.
Tramping and a better work-balance also brought UK-born Andrew Dean from Auckland to Nelson in 1988. Previously with Air New Zealand, Dean says he is likely to stay in Nelson, where he is Sealord's IS manager.
"Outdoor pursuits are excellent. No traffic, a quick trip to and from work, excellent cafes, restaurants and wineries," he continues.
In a smaller centre, Dean says it is easy to operate as a leader (there is less competition), there is a better home/work life balance, plus more varied IT work. But, he points out, there is less access to industry events and fewer job opportunities.
Harry Barber, now CIO of Gisborne District Health Board, left Dunedin in 1984 in search of "a warmer climate".
Barber lauds Gisborne's small, seaside setting. He says the burgeoning café scene, increasingly sophisticated lifestyle, great beaches, fantastic sports make it an attractive place to live - and work.
"Smaller rural places probably don't pay as much as Auckland but offsetting that is the cost of living. The big differential is house prices, lower transport costs and general prices. Living standards are better than Auckland, you can have a better quality of life," he says.
Again, isolation is a challenge, with industry events usually filling a whole day and as a smaller employer, the DHB or Gisborne may lack specialist skills.
"When you are a smaller entity, you don't have as many staff and you have to cover the same bases. You get spread thinner and it is difficult to keep the breadth of knowledge up. You cannot cover all the bases, so we need to go outside," he explains.
Nonetheless, with a better work-life balance and "healthy" lifestyle, Barber now considers Gisborne "home".
The employer's role
The IT executives also credit their employers for ensuring their jobs offer enough challenges and opportunities for further training so they would not want to leave.
Jill Alexander, national IT manager at Cadbury, says her job is so coveted it keeps her on her toes.
Alexander left Palmerston North for Dunedin 23 years ago, aiming to "endure" just a couple of years. She joined the confectionary firm in an IT support role 18 years ago. "I'm still learning and challenged regularly. I don't feel at all 'stale' in my role."
Isolation restricts travel for learning and industry events, but Dunedin still has its compensations.
"There's lots of sports on offer very close to hand. The ski slopes regularly beckon in winter, we're blessed with some great lakes and I try to spend time on the water sailing," Alexander adds.
Steve Johansen, CIO of the Port of Napier "hates" the isolation from an international airport, but says his job and the lifestyle keep him in Hawkes Bay.
Johansen says his role is broad, including project management and wider business responsibility, such as running a port expansion, which means a salary "people in Auckland will die for".
"Perhaps a tour of duty in the provinces is not such a bad thing after all," he adds.
However, not everyone appreciates the country life, a factor behind Zespri struggling to find workers and a CIO upon transferring operations from Auckland to Tauranga in 2002.
Former CIO Graham Coles, now living in Queensland, blamed the problem on staff not wanting to move families and a perceived lack of opportunities in the Bay of Plenty.
Cole's effective successor, Zespri's group financial and systems controller, Mervyn Dallas, was attracted though, to the Tauranga lifestyle after similar roles at Sky City Adelaide and Sky City Auckland.
"The Bay of Plenty is a great place to bring up children. I certainly take much advantage of the country life, such as fishing and other watersports, mountain biking," says Dallas.
The former Northlander, from Paparoa, owns a lifestyle block 30 kilometres away from work and while such a home may have been possible near Auckland, it would have meant an hour-plus commute, instead of just 20 to 25 minutes.
However, Tauranga has similar downsides to other lifestyle centres, such as fewer other IT executives and lower pay. There are also less training and vendor support functions, so key services often must be imported from Auckland.
"I am very lucky in having the lifestyle for family but also the challenge of leading an IS function at an international organisation," Dallas adds.
Overall, recruiters concur with the points raised by the IT executives. Ben Pearson of QIDR Recruitment says country CIOs are rare and are more likely IS or IT managers with a more strategic role, working for smaller organisations.
Pearson, who used to be based in Wellington with Hudson Recruitment, now works from home in Nelson.
CIOs in smaller centres may feel isolated, he says. They also have concerns about the relevancy of their skills and experience should they wish to return to the city. However, most make the change for lifestyle reasons and see the role as a long-term change, so country vacancies are scarce.
Remuneration is lower in the provinces, but closer to city levels than expected as employers increasingly accept skill shortages. IT leaders also accept certain areas like Northland and New Plymouth offer a very favourable standard of living, he says.
Grant Burley, absoluteIT director, says his agency has no trouble attracting IT leaders to places like New Plymouth because of a lower cost of living. He cites the experiences of IT executives who have returned from overseas work and are now living in lifestyle areas. They work as consultants to city firms, earning "good money while keeping in touch with the rest of the industry".
Richard Manthel, managing director of Robert Walters, confirms little difference between city and country salaries. "These roles require talented individuals and are generally difficult to fill due to most, if not all CIOs, having to relocate family to take up the position and effectively put their lives on hold for the duration of the tenure," he says.
Thus, if the country life beckons, what should you do? Here are some pragmatic pointers from those who have been there.
"Don't have high expectations of traditional career paths or pay packets. Be willing to be flexible and self-sufficient, be ready for anything. Do not expect a huge support structure and learn to slow down," advises Martin.
"You have to be sure what you want. It is harder to get out of than into. If you are still hungry and chomping at the bit to conquer the world, (then the country is) not for you," says Foster.
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