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Skills, Talent, and Tech Employment

Whether in good economic times or bad, it is not difficult to find something related to getting a new job in the trade press or the blogs (for example, . We are all highly valuable, or have obsolete skills, or about to be outsourced, or need business smarts to go along with our technical training.

They make it seem very formulaic. Do this, don't do that. Get certified. Learn this language, or that platform. Specialize. Generalize. Know the business side. Be flexible.

I call them broad overgeneralizations, if not just plain wrong. A job search is a very personal thing. Even if your skill set is exactly the same as mine, our mental model, outlook and attitude, personality, and professional goals are almost certainly substantially different.

And it's a largely random process. Don't even get me started on automated resume screening systems. Even in the best of circumstances, whether or not I get an interview may depend on who looks at my resume, and how they are feeling that day. And the dynamics of that interview have as much or even more to do with the personal chemistry and nonverbal interactions, rather than your qualifications for the job.

That wasn't the way it was supposed to be, was it? Get a tech education and some experience, and the jobs will find you. Even if you have to do some looking, there are plenty of jobs available. But follow the formula, everyone said.

So I'll contradict the published wisdom. There is no formula. And there is a lot of luck involved, both good and bad. There are things you can do to improve your chances, but there is no sure thing. And even the things that you can do to improve your chances are probably things you don't want to do, or don't think you're good at.

First, you have to start with a premise. In technology, you will almost certainly find yourself unemployed on more than one occasion (my number so far is three times). Your company has a layoff, moves locations, or closes completely. You don't fit well into the culture or the required job activities, or have a personality conflict with a new manager. You decide you want some time off.

These events shouldn't take you by surprise, and you should be prepared for them. Certainly having the money available to tide you over is a big part of the preparation, but even more important is the mental side. You should always have a good idea of what you want your next step to be, and what is a realistic path to that next step. And if that path means developing new skills or meeting new people, you should do that now. And you should update your resume on a regular basis. Not after the axe has fallen.

The new skills you need are probably not technical ones. And they may not even be the business skills that everyone says you should be working on. Rather, for lack of a better word, they are personality skills. How to meet new people and have them remember you, how to present new ideas, and how to feel comfortable interacting in a group and working a room. How to build and maintain the electronic equivalent of a Rolodex, and stay in touch with everyone in it.

Does it feel too much like sales? Do you think your skills and experience should speak for themselves? They may, but probably not. If you want the edge, you need to place yourself in uncomfortable situations, and learn how to perform in them.

Don't know where to put yourself in these situations? They are all around you, but they almost certainly have nothing to do with sitting at your desk and coding away for five days a week. There is a Toastmasters session in your cafeteria after hours, a standards committee meeting at your competitor down the street, and a study group in a conference room at lunchtime. Open source projects are begging for help, in testing and documentation writing, if not coding. You can be doing all of these things with an e-mail or two. Yes, work is demanding (I worked twelve hours last weekend, and Nancy Grace is on CNN as I write this), but just doing your job in tech is the surest way to a lengthy stay the unemployment line.

Don't feel like it? You may skate through your career anyway. I still know programmers at the large defense contractor downtown with 25 years of seniority. But you're not doing yourself any favors. Remember the choices you made when the hammer drops.

Bad management and outsourcing made your career more difficult, but not impossible. I'll tell you a secret; I don't like doing any of this stuff either. I get lazy, and don't do them as well as I should. But I do so because in each of my periods of unemployment, I was back at another job within three weeks. Your call.

Posted by Peter Varhol on 01/17/2007

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