Lifelong Techies Don't Retire, They Reboot
After a layoff at 64, he launched an app biz with others like him
At 64 years and 10 months, Robert Gray was one of 50 people laid off at International Data Corp. in 2007, where he was a vice president. A well-known computer industry analyst and computer storage systems designer, Gray had spent 40 years working in the field.
"It was ironic," he said, "because as an industry analyst I was paid to forecast future trends and, while I had been thinking about retiring, I had not forecast that the decision would be taken out of my hands."
Gray had saved some money for the next phase of his life, but “I didn’t have a plan about what to do with my new freedom.”
(MORE: Starting a Business After 50)
A Reunion Sparks an Idea
A plan soon began to take shape, though, at a Cornell University reunion of 65 former members of the Cornell Radio Guild (creator and operator of WVBR in Ithaca, N.Y.) who were entrepreneurial innovators in the early 1960s.
Gray noticed that of all those at the reunion, he'd been the last one standing in a corporate job. All the rest had been pushed out, as much as a decade earlier.
"I was shocked at the loss of skills and expertise,” he said. “And, since that reunion, I've attended too many networking events where talented, 'involuntarily retired' tech veterans would reach into the recesses of their wallets to retrieve a dog-eared business card that looked like it had not seen the light of day in years. This was wrong and I vowed to do something about it."
As Gray was downloading his first iPhone apps, he had an epiphany — that apps let smartphone users exploit the web’s vast content to support personal aspects of their lives. That ignited a plan to reboot veteran techies like himself, whose experience and expertise were being rejected, and work with them to create the next wave of digital and software products.
A Travel Apps Business Is Born
In 2009, Gray launched At-Hand Apps to actualize that vision. Headquartered in Newton, Mass., At-Hand Apps is a self-funded and self-managed cooperative. Each "member" either brings capital into the business or earns equity through sweat equity contributions.
“I envisioned having a large, open membership with shared responsibilities and rewards in the future,” said Gray, the company's executive director.
The business specializes in travel guide apps you can download from the iTunes App Store for an iPhone or iPad; they range in price from free to $4.99. There are now 10 At-Hand Guides for New England and New York's Finger Lakes Region, as well as one for New York’s Hudson River Valley. They feature the top attractions in an area plus what’s worth a look nearby. The logo is @aha! (for at-hand apps).
“We invite you to use At-Hand Guides to get out and relish, and be inspired by, the world around you — the natural beauty, the amazing historical past our lives are built on, the culture of agreements we live by and the art created by our fellow life travelers,” said Gray.
He and Janet Egan, a former tech writer who was also laid off in her 60s, create or edit all the writing for the guides. Egan also acts as liaison between At-Hand’s content and tech teams. "As yet, we are not able to pay the content contributors, but they do receive credit in the app," said Egan.
Adds Gray: "We have done experiments with free pricing on several of our apps and believe the path to future profitability might be to shift to an advertising-supported model. We are actively exploring that possibility."
Gray’s members hope their equity (sweat and cash) will pay off in financial returns for them down the road. But for now, they’re eager to continue this labor of love and learning. Here’s a little bit about four of them:
One of the founding At-Hand members and, at 49, the youngster on the team, Granoff lost his job in October 2008 from a Boston-area tech company as part of a company-wide cost-cutting. It was the first time in his 21-year career that Granoff had been laid off.
"To be honest, I felt like I would have no trouble getting another job. I had solid skills and experience developing server-side infrastructure software. However, we all know what happened at the end of 2008, and I was out of work for 10 months," said Granoff.
Towards the end of 2008, a friend suggested he take up iPhone programming, since some app developers were raking in the dough.
“I had a lot of time on my hands when I wasn’t actively looking for work and interviewing, so I decided to teach myself how to build apps for Apple,” said Granoff. “After five months, I had an app in the App Store. Then, in 2010, a full-time iOS position came my way — ironically from the VP of Engineering who had laid me off in 2008 and was now at a new startup."
Granoff, who met Gray at an iOS Developers meetup in 2009 where they connected over their passion for app development, couldn’t consider working for At-Hand Apps full-time since he must earn enough money to support his family. So he volunteers at At-Hand when he can. Among other things, Granoff helps maintain At-Hand’s standard of intuitive simplicity, insuring that the look and feel of the apps remain consistent from guide to guide.
A true tech veteran, Burrows was in his 60s and underemployed when he met Gray and volunteered to redesign At-Hand's server. "I've been on the 'Internet' (then called the ARPAnet) since 1974,” said Burrows. I’m inordinately pleased to have done the human-factors analysis that resulted in the inverted-T arrangement of the arrow keys used on keyboards for the last 25 years."
Burrows instantly got Gray's idea that seasoned techies could continue utilizing their skills and expertise for many years beyond the typical retirement age.
"The only criteria I’ve consistently applied to my job selection has been having a challenging problem and a good team to solve it with,” said Burrows. “And I want to continue to work with Robert's highly-motivated talent pool."
Rarich’s first layoff occurred when the financial crisis hit his company, NetApp, in 2008. After being unemployed for 14 months, at age 69, he got a job at HP. But Rarich was then laid off again in 2012 during HP’s worldwide “reduction in staff.”
Rarich first met Gray in the 1980s when they worked at Digital Equipment Corp. They met again before Rarich's layoffs, when Gray told him about his plans to create At-Hand Apps.
These days, Rarich offers Gray marketing and business advice pro bono. Gray says Rarich is also one of At-Hand’s more important beta testers, “finding more bugs than the rest of the team combined.”
Rarich, who has designed and built websites since the '80s, is currently teaching himself how to build sites with the WordPress publishing platform and is encouraging Gray to switch to it so At-Hand’s apps will be cross-platform and not iOS-restricted.
Gray is continually looking for new At-Hand members — creative individuals with fresh ideas and a passion about technology — and Zbyszynski, 72, is a perfect example.
Zbyszynski is an award-winning photographer who’d worked at Digital Equipment Corporation before voluntarily leaving the corporate world to become a computer professor at Bentley College. After retiring (again voluntarily) from teaching, in his 60s, Zbyszynski plunged into his lifelong love of photography.
Gray found his photos on Flickr and, as he began using them increasingly for the guides, contacted the photographer. When Zbyszynski looked up Gray on LinkedIn, he scrolled through the thousand names in the network of the At-Hand founder and recognized at least 200 from their computing past.
They've now been working together for three years. An At-Hand volunteer, Zbyszynski has shot many photos for the apps, mostly around Boston's North Shore.
“Many people don't observe what's around them. I feel my photos for At-Hand Guides are helping people 'see,'" said Zbyszynski. "That's my reward, and I never plan to stop creating."
Elizabeth Isele wrote this article with support from the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows program, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.