How to stay up in a down economy

Laid off or overworked, IT pros still need to mind their emotional health. Here are six ways to keep your outlook bright in dark times.

It doesn't take a $250 visit to a psychotherapist to confirm what you feel in your gut each morning when you wake up -- it's depressing out there. Market volatility, economic instability, pink slips and the ongoing threat of yet another round of IT layoffs -- no wonder you feel like diving back under the covers.

If you've been let go, you might worry that you'll never work again. If you've escaped a layoff, "it's very discouraging when you see colleagues leave because these people were your friends," says Beverly Lieberman, an IT recruiter and career coach and president of Halbrecht Lieberman Associates Inc.

Employees may feel trapped in a company where "they're sort of grateful to be still working, but they're insecure" because virtually no employer is making any guarantees about IT or any other kind of job.

How techies stay positive

"Everybody is saying you can write off 2009 because there are no indicators it will get any better," Lieberman sums up. "We're praying for 2010."

But that doesn't mean you have to spend the rest of the year as an emotional cellar dweller. It's not easy, but it is possible for tech pros to nurture themselves and even bolster their professional credentials during these tough times, whether you're laid off and looking, or left behind and overworked.

So how exactly do you go about staying up in a down economy? Computerworld gathered tips from a quartet of IT career experts, including Lieberman; Boston-area career coach and author Naomi Karten; IT career expert, author and Computerworld columnist Paul Glen; and Nagesh Belludi, a professional software engineer and program manager at a large multinational company who also regularly counsels IT professionals. Their advice is to do the following:

Return to your roots

Remember why you first got into information technology? Bring back some of that enthusiasm -- and maybe even master a new skill -- by doing something you'd never be assigned to do on the job, just for the sheer technological challenge of it.

Write a new program, fix one that's been broken and bugging you for ages, or master a whole new programming language. Or use your tech skills to connect with the world: Build a Web site, create and post an original video on YouTube, or start a blog to share your IT views or showcase your skills. Heck, learn the functions -- all of them -- of your smartphone.

Get the most from social networking

Building and maintaining a network is important even in good times, but being connected with friends and colleagues can be especially valuable now. So take full advantage of social networking opportunities via Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other online communities.

A network of contacts can yield advance notice of a company that's hiring -- or laying people off. More broadly, social networking can help you read the tea leaves about the health of various vertical markets (for example, if several of your contacts recently found work in health care or switched out of manufacturing).

Finally, simple human interaction can be uplifting, even if it is electronic. Reconnecting with high school friends, college buddies and old co-workers won't necessarily help your career directly, but it can do wonders for your outlook by reminding you who you were before you felt like you were nothing but a job or a job search.

Get out into the real world

If you live near a university, check out its technology-transfer center. These are official, university-supported incubators for technology research and start-up tech companies.

Personnel in technology-transfer centers excel at helping people sell the business benefits of technology -- a skill that IT professionals could often use help with as well.

"People in IT do not know how to sell themselves. When you look at programmers' résumés and how they interview, they talk about their skills in terms of C++ and other technical languages," says Belludi.

"They don't explain that a project they worked on saved their company hundreds of thousands of dollars or what the business benefits of a project were."

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