Why I Retired

Roderick at 16
At 16, working on a computer made entirely out of TTL integrated circuits for the engineering fair.

Six years ago, my company offered an early retirement package.  I gave it scant consideration.  The economy was not good, so why would I exchange a perfectly good job for the unknown?  Retire at 47?  Absurd!

For that matter, if you had asked me as recently as February, 2012, how long I expected to continue working, I would have said something like, “Haven’t thought about it, maybe ten, fifteen years?”  Yet I retired in August 2012.  The perfect storm of events, large and small, came together to make that the right choice.  You might say that God made my path abundantly clear:

  • At the end of February, my Mother passed away.  Of course we miss her, but there are positives to it, also.  She was ready to join my Father, her sister, mother, and all the other good friends that had gone before.  Mom was lucid, if a bit forgetful, and physically fit until the very last few weeks.  Since she was the last of the parents between my wife and myself, that meant that we wouldn’t have a long-term parent care issue, either time-wise, or financially.  And Mom left us an inheritance.  I’m not really tracking it, and when we get it, I doubt it would be enough to live on by itself.  Still, that could only bolster our financial situation.
  • Our children had both decided to attend public universities, meaning that we already had enough pre-saved to cover both their educations.
  • We had enough savings.  At least, I think we have enough to live off of for a number of years.  So there was no pressure to find another job in any particular time frame.
  • Our division at work moved to Palo Alto, a city 12 miles away.  For almost 30 years, I had lived within just a few miles of work, and was able to commute by bicycle, rain or shine.  For the past 15 years, I treasured the 15 to 20 minutes of time to myself each way.  But with the new location, I would have to ride for 80 minutes, which I found to be too exhausting.  I would have had to become a car commuter, which I would have found distasteful.  The way the retirement schedule worked out, I had to spend just one week in the new location.
  • I had seen no raises for a decade.  I have to explain this one carefully.  During the internet boom in the late 90’s and new millennium, it was not necessary to work hard, but I did anyway, so had a highly-scoped position.  Just a week before the planes hit the World Trade Center, the real bomb dropped on me – our company announced a merger with another, and my product line would be terminated.  That severely reduced the value of my position, and in fact, it was re-scoped three levels lower.  In spite of my efforts to improve, there were no raises.  I took that as a sign that I was being paid more than I was worth – a situation that some wouldn’t mind, were it not for matters of integrity and job security.  Almost no one got raises during that era at my level, including those paid less but doing the same thing.  In retrospect, if you had given me a choice of how I would like my salary to go – 1) paid high, but no raises; or 2) paid low, but minimal raises, and still not getting to the same salary after many, many years – I would have chosen option 1.  But at the end of 2011, I was informed that I would be getting a small raise.  Ironically, that was a clue that the gravy train had ended.
  • We had no new products coming out for a while.  Throughout my career, my value had come from designing or fixing things.  In fact, a good three-word summary of what I did was, “I fix things.”  With no new products, there was nothing to fix.  I was relegated to marketing work – not bad in itself, except that I got the feeling that I wasn’t making a difference.
  • The market, and our partners, moving away from our type of product.  It was like being the CRT division of a computer monitor company, when the LCD division was on the rise.  We might make excellent CRT’s, but the future would be very shaky.
  • I broke a filling in March, so went in for extensive dental work for the next few months.  I got all my cavities filled.  So I was all set, even before getting the retirement offer.  There is no subsidized dental insurance for retirees.
  • My last stock option was gone.  I had one option left, received at the end of the internet boom 10 years earlier.  I exercised it in March 2012, just before it expired.  It was very unlikely that I would be getting any more.  As a side note, every option I had ever received made at least a little money.  (At least, every option I ever earned.  At one point, an option was given to every employee in the company.  Because of the high strike price, one ever made a penny from that one.)
  • My colleague, the only one I could converse with intelligently about hardware, was transferred to another group to do development.  That meant I would be hanging around still trying to be busy, but also without a close friend to talk to.  I was interested in a similar transfer, but it never went anywhere.  In a way, it was sort of good that it didn’t, as if I was still designing, I wouldn’t have left.  And retirement suits me, so far.
  • Our company in general looked like it was in for hard times for the next few years.  One analyst remarked in an article that we were the world leaders in PCs (but not tablets or smart phones), Printers, and Enterprise Servers – all of them declining categories.
  • There was a reduced payroll tax that expired at the end of 2012.  That meant my pay would drop in 2013.  In fact, come to think of it, my so-called raise was about equal to the increased tax, so my take-home might have been the same.  If that was the company’s motivation for a raise, then it further underscored that I was being overpaid.
  • Our pension was being changed in September, phasing in different accounting methods that would result in lower lump sum payments to retirees.  By getting out when I did, I got thousands more.
  • My friend, who is the same age as me, had a heart attack.  A reminder that life is short.

And so, in April 2012, just after my 54th birthday, when an early retirement package was offered, I checked the box on the form.

When I first started at the company, the common way of getting more money was to move around to different companies.  That wasn’t for me.  I told people early on, I could see myself working for that place 30 years.  And I did.  31 years at the same company, without even counting summer and temp work.

I look back at my career with astonishment and extreme gratitude.  If I had been born a a year earlier, I would have been eligible for the legacy retirement medical plan – subsidized medical for life.  On the other hand, if I had been born much earlier, I would also have been eligible for the Draft.  As it was, I hit the window between the end of the Vietnam war, and the restarting of the selective service registration.  The way I see it, I got a good deal.

Moreover, I hit the golden age of digital electronics just about right.  Electricity was my hobby early on, and electronics a natural follow-on in intermediate school.  I started learning about logic gates from an issue of Popular Electronics in 1973, and shortly thereafter, our high school was the first one in the state to pilot a digital electronics class.

When I got to college, there was no question as to what to major in.  I was born an Electrical Engineer, and declared D13 in my first year.  It was pretty much play for the next three decades.

[Update: 08-AUG-2013]

I went back to my former workplace to visit and have lunch with a friend in July.  The place was empty.  My entire business unit had been absorbed into another.  Almost no one from my original team was in the plant.  Some had been moved off to Fremont, an even more distant city.  Still others had been moved to other groups, but were mostly “working from home.”  Still others, among them our very finest, still had not been assigned jobs.  The whole place was dark, empty, and lonely.

Had I not taken the package, I think I would likely be sitting at a desk in Fremont, cranky from a 45-minute commute by car, wondering (with apologies to The Matrix) “why oh why didn’t I take the RED pill?”

[Update: 31-MAR-2015]

I had lunch with a former co-worker a couple months ago. The entire group that I had been working in, likely tens of thousands of people, had been disbanded. We had already been culled to the best of the best on my former team, though, so most people were able to find other positions in the company, or move to other companies.

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