IT survivor: 7 tips for career growth in tight times

Working in today's cutthroat economy has become a lot like the old joke about two guys being chased by a grizzly bear. One guy stops to take off his work shoes and lace up some sneakers.

"Are you crazy?" says Guy No. 2. "You can't outrun a bear."

"I don't have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you," Guy No. 1 quips.

And with high-tech firms laying off nearly 20,000 workers in the past month alone, outrunning the other guy is fast becoming the survival mode for IT.

(Check out InfoWorld's 2009 IT career survival guide to find out where IT jobs are headed.)

Here are seven tips for outlegging the competition and surviving the downturn with your job intact. What you find here may come off as common sense, but when it comes to keeping ahead of the guy in the cubicle down the hall, common sense just might be all you need to gain an edge. After all, how often do you see your co-workers demonstrating common sense these days?

IT survivor tip No. 1: Roll up your sleeves -- and cheer up!

The good news? You can survive in today's tight economy. The bad news? You may have to log longer hours and take on less-than-exciting projects.

Start by taking notice of the projects that get the most attention from management and ask to be a part of them, advises Betsy Richards, director of career services at Kaplan University.

"Ask to be transferred to a critical area, or volunteer for extra duties to support these activities," Richards says. "You'll be viewed as an employee who goes the extra mile while inoculating yourself against expendability when the pink slips get handed out."

Beyond simply working harder than the next guy, you have to look like you're working harder, says Simon Stapleton, a technology careers coach who calls himself "the IT industry's answer to Indiana Jones" (but without the bullwhip). Show up before your boss gets in and leave after he or she leaves. Skip the long coffee breaks and work through lunch.

"My best advice is to roll your sleeves up -- literally," says Stapleton, who's also chief innovation officer at Skandia Investment Solutions, a U.K.-based financial services firm. "Pick up the pace when you walk around the office. Carry a clipboard. Your determination to help your company succeed will show in your body language. Now is the time to display the visible signs that you're busting your ass."

And if you can, do it with a smile.

"IT people tend to be grumps," notes Curt Finch, a formerly grumpy software programmer who's now CEO of Journyx, a maker of Web-based time- and expense-management software. "The No. 1 thing is having a positive attitude. The glass-half-full guys, the optimists, the ones who say, 'Sure, we're in a tough situation, but here's how we're going to get through it' -- those are the people I want around me during a recession."

IT survivor tip No. 2: Show off your mad skillz -- or get some, fast.

The most reliable path for self-preservation is to become the in-house expert on topics vital to the business.

"You need to be the one everyone comes to when they have a question about a particular topic or technology," says Nicholas Lore, career coach and founder of Rockport Institute. "When you're the person everyone goes to, you become indispensable."

(For a deeper look at training well worth your while, see "Hot tech certifications in a cool job market")

Similarly, if you have skills that cross departments or systems, you're less likely to be canned than Johnny One-Note in the cubicle down the hall.

Be versatile, advises Colin Strasser, CEO of U2i, a software consulting firm. "If you've been doing nothing but Java for 10 years, try Python or Ruby. If you've been working under Windows, do some work with Linux."

According to a survey by Robert Half International, Web developers with social media savvy or expertise in technologies such as .Net, SharePoint, Java and PHP will continue to be in high demand. Help-desk pros with knowledge of a wide range of systems are also more likely to hold on to jobs.

Ask your HR department if the company offers training programs or reimburses tuition costs, says Kaplan's Richards. You may also be able to obtain low-cost continuing education from professional organizations or user groups.

If those options aren't available, you can still expand your expertise relatively cheaply, notes Iman Jalali, director of sales and marketing at Train Signal, vendor of IT training materials. For around $400, Train Signal helps you get up to speed on topics such as Windows Server 2008 or VMware ESX.

"Some people feel like if they've been in the same business for 25 years, it's a badge of honor," says Jalali. "In IT, that could mean you'll lose your job tomorrow. Everyone needs to stay up to date, or risk being replaced by someone who's up on all the newest technologies."

IT survivor tip No. 3: Remember, it's just business.

You know how in Mafia movies, the hit man always says, "It's just business," right before he whacks his best friend?

Well, it is just business. And you need to know how the business makes money and what projects or systems are essential to that mission -- and get yourself assigned to them.

"Look at how your company is making its profit," says Finch. "You have to become indispensable to the success of that effort through adding real business value. Demonstrate through your timekeeping and meetings and activities that this is primarily what you are working on. Short-term revenue is more important than long-term in a down economy."

Getting the feeling your department needs to reduce head count? Come up with a plan for how to do it while keeping the lights on, and produce metrics to show how much money these cuts will save. If there's a line being drawn, you want to be standing on the same side as the CFO and the CEO, says Dave Taylor, co-founder of Sparxent, an IT management solutions vendor.

In other words: You're no longer a techie helping the business; you're a businessperson who uses tech to boost the bottom line.

"Transition your focus from technology to business value and business needs," advises Shane Aubel, co-founder of IT consulting firm Accent Global System Architects. "The more tangible, quantifiable results you offer, the more indispensable you will be. The business is the customer, and what the customer wants, the customer gets."

IT survivor tip No. 4: Work the numbers.

Metrics are your friend. If you want to prove you're vital to the survival of your company, you better have the digits to back it up.

"IT people need to become experts at marketing themselves internally," says Sparxent's Taylor. "They need to provide more targeted and more detailed reports on where the IT dollars are spent; they need to put metrics in place to report on whether IT projects have generated ROI or not; and they need to be much more transparent in reporting on whether they've achieved the metrics or not."

(Getting ahead is still possible. Check out "20 ways to get promoted in the tech industry" to find out how.)

In other words, be proactive. Don't wait for the CFO to call you on the carpet to explain where all the money went, says Taylor. Know down to the dollar how much it costs to provision applications or provide Level 1 support -- and then suggest ways you can reduce it.

"You need to be able to say, 'We just deployed Office 2007, and it took an average of 43 minutes to install on every users' desktop at a cost of $180 an hour, so it costs more to provision Office than it did to pay for the license,'" Taylor says. "When you have that kind of detail at your fingertips, the CFO realizes you're focused on getting the company what it needs at the lowest possible cost."

Tying your projects to company profits is essential, adds Finch. You want to work on the projects that bring in the most revenue or save the most money.

"Companies always want to cut failing projects and unprofitable customers first," he adds. "If you do have to cut people, you want to be able to do it with a scalpel and not a chainsaw."

IT survivor tip No. 5: Be a peacock, not a turtle.

Now is not the time to crawl under your desk and hide until the scary man with the pink slips goes away.

"The biggest trap people fall into during a downturn is to try and fly under the radar until it all blows over," says Nina Buik, president of HP's Connect user group. "Now is the time to show how you can make a difference. Be the person in your organization who sends an e-mail to the CIO saying, 'I've got a great idea I need to share.' You'll stand head and shoulders above the rest."

If you don't sell yourself, nobody will. But when you blow your own horn, sound less like a marching band and more like Miles Davis.

One of the best ways to promote yourself is to get other people to do it for you, says John Baschab, senior vice president at Technisource.

"People are always looking for anecdotal evidence of your performance," Baschab says. "If you're on the help desk and someone sends you an e-mail thanking you for your help, ask them if they can send a copy to your boss. When you get verbal kudos, get them written down and sent to the right place."

The praise of others is always worth more than self-puffery, agrees Buik. "But your boss may not know about all the little things you do. Take a win you've helped generate for the company, find someone else involved in it, and ask them to write it up for you and post it on your LinkedIn profile. Then offer to do the same for them."

Reminding your bosses all the wonderful things you've done is a start, but it isn't enough. You need to keep putting your hand up for new projects that keep revenue flowing.

"What you did last month is a lot less relevant than what you're going to do next month," notes Finch. "It's all about the bottom line. You could be Albert Einstein and still get fired if they have nothing for you to do for the next three months."

IT survivor tip No. 6: Schmooze it -- or lose it.

Everyone hates a suck-up. And yet the world is full of them, so they must be doing something right. The people who are retained in a downturn aren't always the most competent, notes Lore. They're often the ones who are the best liked and know the right people.

"You've got to network inside your own company," says Lore. "Make sure the senior people know who you are, the contributions you've made, and that they like you. Create a wider circle so other people start talking about you. Very often, techs are shy about being forward with senior people in the company. This is not the time to be shy."

Although the cliché is that geeks are notoriously bad at social interaction, these are skills that can be easily learned, says Lore. In fact, he adds, they're the same skills found in books that teach nerds how to pick up girls -- mimic your boss's body language, speak in the same tones, talk about the things they're interested in and so on.

Joining user groups and professional associations will expand your network, exposing you to new skills and potential employers, notes Buik. Donating your tech skills to worthy organizations can also raise your profile.

"IT experts who volunteer their time to upgrade the network for a nonprofit tend to gain positive press and build name recognition in their locality," says Ari Kaplan, author of "The Opportunity Maker," a book on creative networking and business development.

Online networks such as LinkedIn can help, too. "Don't just put a little bit of information in there," says Buik. "Sell yourself. Tell everyone within three feet of you what you're trying to do. If you're looking for new opportunities, let everyone know."

Just be sure to use social nets wisely. Building up your résumé on LinkedIn is a good idea; sending your zombie to attack your boss' zombie on Facebook is probably sending the wrong message about how you spend your time at work.

IT survivor tip No. 7: If all else fails, move to Australia.

Now is not a good time to be job shopping. Even if there's a photo of your boss next to the Wikipedia entry for "jerk," it's generally better to grit your teeth and stick it out until the economy recovers. But if the worst happens and you get downsized, you still have options -- like relocating to Australia, for instance.

(To see what IT skills are in demand around the globe, see InfoWorld's guide to outsourcing yourself.)

"A raft of big projects is keeping the local IT market relatively buoyant, and demand for skills remains solid," notes Peter Acheson, COO of Australia's largest IT recruiter, Peoplebank. "There will still be strong demand for IT skills in the market here in 2009 -- in fact, in some sectors it will still be tight."

Another option is to join the temp-to-perm workforce, says Tom Hart, executive vice president at staffing firm Veritude. Staff augmentation services offer both businesses and employees more flexibility, he says.

"There are so many good reasons to be flexible, even if all you've ever done is hold down permanent jobs," Hart says. "It gives you the opportunity to feel good about a potential employer, and for them to feel good about you. And you continue to collect a paycheck as you wait for things to get better."

It could even be time to consider going back to school or changing careers, says Lore, especially if technology isn't exactly your life's calling.

"Many people went into IT because they had strong analytical skills, not because they enjoyed the work," Lore says. "For them, a career change might be the best solution. Just because you have long legs doesn't mean you'll be happy as a Rockette."

This story, "IT survivor: 7 tips for career growth in tight times" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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