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How To Find A Great IT Job In A Bad Economy

Job-finding tips from IT pros who were pink-slipped, but survived to work another day include aggressive networking and skills training.

Alice LaPlante

February 3, 2009

8 Min Read

John Senne is one of the lucky ones. He got the news that his team at Torex, a global point-of-sale systems provider based in Chicago, was being eliminated in mid-January. Senne, who supported the sales group by building demos of POS systems for potential new accounts, went home that night and logged onto his Facebook account. "Damn, damn, damn," he wrote. "I'm getting laid off at the end of the month."

The following morning, an e-mail marked URGENT was in his inbox. "It was an offer from my former boss at FTD to come back and work for him," he said. Although his new job at the flower delivery giant has not yet been defined, Senne knows he dodged a bullet. "I'm not going to miss a single day of work," he said. "I feel a little embarrassed talking to people who have been laid off and have no prospects, but it shows that if you work hard and keep up a good rapport with people, that it pays off."

Many aren't so fortunate. After holding its own despite the economic turmoil plaguing other industries, IT employment finally plummeted in December. According to the National Association of Computer Consultant Businesses, which tracks these numbers every month, the economy lost 34,000 IT jobs in November -- a drop of 0.87 percent, representing the most serious monthly decline in more than three years. "The fact that IT employment continues to outperform the general employment marketplace is small consolidation for those who have been affected," said Mark Roberts, CEO of the NACCB.

So, what to do if you're one of the ones unlucky enough to have been tapped to leave the building? Here's some advice from people in the trenches.

Network, Network, Network

When Nilo Sarraf got laid off in December from her job as a usability engineer at Yahoo, she looked around at her colleagues who had also received pink slips and saw an opportunity. She went home and reserved the Layoffs Café URL for $10 and put out a notice on MeetUp for anyone in Silicon Valley who had recently been laid off to come to a meeting at an independent coffeehouse in Mountain View, Calif.

Twenty people showed up, and within days Sarraf had more than 80 other local laid off workers clamoring for a second meeting. She's had inquiries for starting up Layoffs Café chapters in other states, and is excited about the buzz her idea is generating.

"Because I'm fairly junior in my field -- I'm still working on my master's thesis -- I've come to terms with the fact that I'm going to have trouble finding my next job," she said. "Networking is key -- not just with people in your field, but in other industries, too. You never know when you're going to bump into a great opportunity."

John Senne agrees. "Your network is the first place you should turn to when you've been laid off," he said. "People like helping other people. And the social networks like Linked in and Facebook make it easier than ever to stay in touch." Do Your Research

Paul Echeverri had been working at Sun Microsystems for more than eight years as a technical writer, mainly writing API and developer documentation, and had survived every layoff "until this one," he said ruefully, referring to the major downsizing Sun announced in late January.

In addition to checking out the usual job sites, he is taking a more innovative approach to seeking work. Because he lives in Sunnyvale, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley, he began writing down some of the more interesting-sounding names of startups located near his home. He then went online and researched them, and is submitting resumes to the more promising ones.

He's also been checking out the Web sites of local venture capitalists and investigating the startups they've listed as recently funded. "I'm hoping I might find one that needs workers, but hasn't yet gotten around to advertising," he said, adding that he received a generous enough severance from Sun that he can take his time and not just jump at the first opportunity. The ideal job, he says, would be to set up and run the technical publications department at a startup. "I'm trying to see this as an opportunity to grow rather than just a negative event," he said.

Accept A Temporary Or Contract Position

"There are a lot of reasons, even in good times, where IT workers actually prefer contract jobs," said the NACCB's Roberts. "It gives you much more flexibility, and there's the chance you could get a more interesting mix of work than you would in your former permanent job."

It can also be a bridge to a permanent position. That's what Benjamin Britt hopes will happen. As the assistant to the IT manager at Princeton Gammatech, a device manufacturer in Princeton, N.J., he handled PC maintenance and repair and network maintenance until his division was sold off in late 2005. Since then, he's been doing contract work -- both on his own, and through third parties. It's not ideal, he admits. "But you have to take what you can get until the economy gets better," he said.

Jump-Start An Independent Project

Nick Arnett is doing everything by the book when it comes to looking for his next job. He's reconnecting with old colleagues and friends; making sure his profile and recommendations on Facebook and LinkedIn are up to date; scouring the job boards; and has even been to one invitation-only job fair from which he got some valuable leads.

Arnett, who was director of business intelligence services at LiveWorld until September, has had a number of promising interviews, and a lot of potential employers regretfully tell him they are simply not in a position to hire at the present time. He continues to look. But he's also actively investigating an idea that might advance him professionally.

"I really caught the Twitter bug," said Arnett. He conceived of TweetsNet.com, a site based upon the idea that people are still smarter than computers could ever be. "I believe it's better to leverage the combined work of numerous people on Twitter than to write software that tries to outsmart them," he said. He's having fun with his new idea, and hopes it might lead him to his next professional position. "I've gotten several jobs in the past because word got around about a project I was working on," he said. "I've almost never been hired by answering an ad." Get Trained

"IT has always been a very odd niche employment market," said David Foote, CEO and chief research officer at Foote Partners, which has for more than a decade tracked skills and related compensation for the IT industry. "There are always skills in demand. What matters is whether your skills connect or disconnect with trends in the labor market."

The most recent quarterly update of Foote's IT Skills and Certifications Pay Index found some interesting "countertrending" that contradicts conventional economic wisdom. "Urgent demand for certain skills is eclipsing the general trend of corporations to reduce IT budgets and cut people," said Foote.

IT skill areas that have actually increased in market value over the last few months include methodology/process, database, and messaging/communications professionals, and workers who have certifications in architecture/project management, networking, and IT security. Seeking training that helps you acquire these skills could be the fastest ticket to your next IT job, Foote said.

Round Up The Usual Suspects

And don't neglect to also go the tried-and-true route. When Rick Herreck, a programmer with a "pretty wide skill set" including Java, C#, and ASP.net, was laid off from Washington Mutual in late November -- something that hardly came as a surprise given the firm's financial meltdown -- he at first submitted an existing resume to a number of jobs he saw posted, but all he got was a "resounding silence," he recalled.

After the holidays, he tried again by posting his resume on Dice.com. He was immediately contacted by a number of recruiters, one of whom spent a good amount of time helping him revamp his resume so that his statement of work experience was more tightly aligned with the skills the market was in need of. Since then, the recruiter scheduled him for a number of interviews, and Herreck is expecting an offer from one of the firms within the next few days.

He went to a lot of trouble to contact former colleagues and bosses and ask them for recommendations. "References are so important, but you don't just want people who will say, ‘yeah, Rick's a great guy,'" he said. "You want to find the people you worked with on the particular projects that highlight the skills you feel are the most marketable."

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