Right Path, Going Nowhere

A reader who "followed the rules" is still having a tough time finding a job.

I’m a career-changer. I went to school at night and, eventually, found a job as a tech support specialist. The dot-com company I worked for in New York City liked my work and promoted me to data center manager. Unfortunately, I was laid off in July, along with 100 other co-workers.
   This market is really tough. Where recruiters used to call me, now they won't even accept my calls. Realizing a potential weakness, I went back to school. First it was MCP, then MCSE, then CCNA. Next week I'm taking the Citrix CCA exam.
   Much to my disappointment, my situation hasn’t improved. You should hear some of the questions I’m asked: "Do you know Unix/Linux?" "Do you have experience with PBX phone systems?" "Do you know firewalls?" "Do you know Citrix?" What am I doing wrong? Is the market that bad? Have I missed the boat? Should I start practicing air conditioning designs again?
—Going broke
Bloomfield, New Jersey

I really feel for you. Many of us still employed have a fear that we could easily find ourselves in your position. Steve makes some excellent points in his response, and there are a few areas I’d like to expand upon.

Recently I wrote a column (“The Good Ol’ Days”) for MCP Magazine’s sister site CertCities.com. The article touched on many of your concerns. In the long term, things will pick up in IT, but I don’t think we’ll get back to the unsustainable levels of activity we had in the late ’90s. This reduced demand means lower salaries, as well as employers enjoying greater choice—which explains why you were asked about your PBX and Cisco experience.

However, being asked about Linux and Citrix skills seems logical to me, as they’re related to your current skills. When I’m hiring, I ask about these, too. In days gone by, senior technical people were expected to be familiar with both NetWare and Windows NT technologies; at the moment, those two areas are Windows 2000 and Linux. Along with these, Citrix builds on your Win2K knowledge, and the TCO of thin-client technology is currently exciting a lot of technology managers.

It sounds to me like you’re already doing all the right things. I’m afraid I don’t have a magic spell to give you that will quickly and easily resolve your situation. All you can do is keep your existing skills fresh, keep up-to-date on the latest technologies like Windows XP and Windows .NET Server beta, and—most important—keep plugging away day after day to find that next job. I’ve interviewed a number of people recently, and when I asked some basic technical questions I found that many had been out of work for more than a few months and have forgotten things that they probably would or should know. As a hiring manager, I need someone who can jump in and be productive the first day; I can’t afford to take a chance on how I hope someone might perform once they get back up to speed. I can’t say whether this is a problem for you, but it’s something to be aware of. It’s imperative you find ways to keep up your technical knowledge. For example, you might read the Windows 2000 Server Resource Kit from cover to cover (you’d be surprised what you learn and might have forgotten!) and, perhaps, experiment at home with some of the components within Win2K that you don’t know as well as you’d like. Make sure you keep up to date with the latest Microsoft security advisories and hot fixes.

Also, make sure your salary expectations are realistic with the current state of the job market. It’s likely you’ll need to accept less than you were making before, so don’t let this stop you from being considered for open positions. All too often we carry a mental picture of “I’m worth $80,000,” and expect that this salary will keep continuing to increase as we progress in our career. However, as hot skills become commodities or as the total demand drops, remember that we live in a market-based economy; we’re only worth what someone’s prepared to pay us. We shouldn’t get hung up on feeling that we have some intrinsic worth and believing anything less is an insult. I don’t think that this view is very palatable in the IT community right now, but the sooner we get over these barriers, the better for all. Of course I believe we’ll continue to do well in IT relative to other professions, but we probably won’t get back to the salary levels we became used to in the late ’90s.

About the Author

Greg Neilson, MCSE+Internet, MCNE, PCLP, is a Contributing Editor for MCP Magazine and a Professional Development Manager for a large IT services firm in Australia. He’s the author of Lotus Domino Administration in a Nutshell (O’Reilly and Associates, ISBN 1565927176).

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