Tech jobs: Public sector vs private sector - what it's like to make the switch

Switching between the public and private sectors can be rare for CIOs, but one tech chief who's made that move says it delivers big benefits.

For many CIOs, the switch from the public sector to the private sector has seemed like a move that is too big to make comfortably. 

Richard Corbridge, now CIO at Boots, encountered this perception himself when he told people about moving to the high-street retailer and pharmacy chain from his previous role as CIO at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust in April 2019.

"When it was clear what I was going to do, that I was going to step away from the public sector and healthcare and go to Boots, lots and lots of people got in touch," he says. "They were saying 'be careful moving into private sector, it's fast-paced, how are you going to cope?'"

That kind of perception might put some IT leaders off from attempting to swap sectors. Corbridge suggests there aren't too many examples of CIOs who've made the switch from the public to private sector: one key factor, he says, is fear of the unknown.

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"The CIO is worried by that urban myth that going into private sector is going to be so fast and so unbelievably different and terrifying that actually they'll choose to stay with the public sector. When in reality, once you're there, that isn't the case at all."

Corbridge also recognises the fear-factor goes both ways. While a public sector CIO might be hesitant to make the switch, the enterprise that's looking for a new IT chief might have their own reservations about appointing someone with no blue-chip credentials.

"My boss kind of took a gamble," says Corbridge. "He wanted someone who had experienced change and innovation in large organisations that are regulated in a heavy way, and he wanted to bring that skill to Boots."

Corbridge joined the company as director of innovation, helping to build a creative approach to healthcare and wellbeing capability across the brand. Success here led to another switch in August 2020 – this time to the CIO role he'd held at Leeds, and previously at the Health Service Executive in Ireland.

Through 2020, Corbridge spent the first two lockdowns working on a range of projects for Boots, including the creation of virtual GP services, the implementation of COVID-19 tests at branches, and programmes to support the move to online services. With no previous experience of e-commerce, Corbridge led a 250% year-on-year increase in online trading.

He points out the quality of tech leadership in the public sector that business should be aware of. 

"If you're looking at CIOs of large NHS trusts to go to private healthcare organisations, or other high-street healthcare organisations or pharmaceutical companies, then there's some amazing talent out there that really should be considered," says Corbridge.

He argues that digital leadership in the public sector has evolved significantly during the past few years. From online learning to electronic healthcare and onto the development of customer-facing online services, modern public sector CIOs must exploit technology to help their organisations excel operationally.

"It's to do with efficiency and transformation because, quite simply, there's no other way around it," he says. "Healthcare is a lot more fast-paced than the common rumour would have you believe. Over the past decade, it's changed its footing hugely – it's sped up, the enthusiasm for change is there, the teams are there and the desire to do stuff is there."

Corbridge says these fresh experiences leave public sector CIOs in good stead. While he's tasked at Boots with creating technology that helps the company to be more efficient and to create more money, a public sector CIO is similarly required to make their organisation more efficient and to create savings: "It's still a profit and loss conversation in reality."

He says the differences between Boots and Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust aren't as great as some people would have had him believe: both are huge organisations, both are subject to significant levels of governance, and both are attempting to exploit digital technology to help transform their organisations and the services they offer to citizens.

Still, there are some differences. "If you think about trying to persuade the NHS to spend its limited budgets on IT to make change, it's always a persuasion. The hospitals are trying to decide whether to buy a new electronic health record or employ more nurses and put some beds in wards, so you can understand why it's a more difficult conversation," he says.

"Whereas in a retailer that has a transformation agenda to become more of an e-commerce specialist, and all the things that we're doing around mass personalisation and digital marketing, you realise quite quickly that there's a surety to the fact that we need to invest in technology that isn't there in the healthcare system."

While a switch to the public sector remains rare, evidence suggests CIOs are almost always on the lookout for new opportunities. Gartner says at least 25% of CIOs will be "in transition" at any given time, changing either their organisations or their roles. 

The analyst says switching into a new CIO role can be one of the most stressful, yet rewarding, career milestones for an individual. A well-engineered transition create more value for the CIO and the organisation they join.

So what encouraged Corbridge to make the move? 

"I needed to try something new. I thought: 'let's go and try it; let's see whether it is different and how exciting it can be'."

He points to the new digital transformation opportunities that the role affords. As part of Walgreens Boots Alliance, Boots is part of a much larger global organisation. Corbridge values the chance to interact with and learn from executives in other parts of the business around the globe.

"So that's a big interest: 'how can we take what UK IT has done and apply it to the US or other countries?' When I look at what we've done around the COVID response from an IT point, there's many hard-learned lessons that we ought to be exposing. There's some really positive stuff that we could pass on."

For Corbridge, therefore, the switch in sectors has been a boon – and he has advice for other tech leaders who might want to make a similar move: "Find the right organisation and do it."