Things Every IT Major Should Know, Part 1

As my third daughter enters college, I want to advise her and other aspiring IT majors of the many career paths available to them. I could be a geek and use an expanding career and job description tree control, but my development skills are as about as finely tuned as my pectoral and abdominal regions, and I am a geek to the point that I can still lose my 75-year-old dad when discussing DSL vs. dial-up.

First, there are two branches an IT professional can choose from:

  1. IS corporate employee (CE)
  2. IS contractor/consultant (CC)

These paths are very similar in the sense that they provide a paycheck. The behaviors and expectations of each start to diverge from there and can end up worlds apart. Having worked on both sides, I can tell you that there are benefits and risks with each choice and valid reasons why you would choose one over the other. At the risk of losing friends and making enemies on both sides, I'd like to share a practical view based on 20 years of experience.

The CE Profile

Perks are like those things your wife tells you over and over again, and you look at her pretending to listen, until the sports broadcast overtakes your listening capacity, and before you know it, you find yourself committing to a shopping-outlet trip with her and your mother-in-law. Or simply put, perks are things we take for granted and don't miss until we see how difficult and expensive they are to replace, like shopping-outlet trips with wives and mother-in-laws. Corporate perks are becoming more mythical with each passing year. However, your commitment to the company will, or should, provide you with relatively less costly options in the areas of health insurance and paid time off (PTO). PTO used to be called "vacation time" but is now often lumped into one bucket: PTO = vacation + sick days + personal days.

Corporate positions usually offer more in the area of personal and professional balance and quality of life. Your cubicle/office area is usually well kept, scenic to some degree and generally aesthetically bearable. Although the salary is usually less than that of your CC counterpart, the CE can rely on the fact that benefits packages usually make up for most salary differences. Benefits usually include paid time off and health, medical and dental plans, as well as tuition reimbursement programs, on-site education and training. Some places even include physical fitness centers, and free coffee and tea! One employer even has an agreement set up with several Tennessee universities to completely subsidize your children's college education.

Corporate employees can take solace from the fact that, although no job is guaranteed, in a time of downsizing, it's usually the CC that gets the axe before any CE heads are rolling.

The downside to the CE path is the grind. Sometimes working day in and day out at the same place, same job, same people can get pretty monotonous. The trick is to keep it entertaining. For example, we have an office scapegoat who always gets the blame for anything that goes awry on a day-to-day basis -- all in good fun, and it definitely breaks up the day.

The CC Rider

There are different degrees of CCs out there. The most common breed is the IS contractor. A contractor works for himself, usually through an intermediary. The intermediary is an individual person or a firm that acts as the job placement arm of the CC. They recruit you and sign you up to their exclusive placement service. They charge the client a billing rate to cover their overhead and the hourly rate of the CC. There are usually standard contract terms you must agree to and understand before signing on. You will need to choose between hourly and salary payment. Unless you select a salaried position with the contract firm, you get paid for the time you put in. You submit time sheets and get paid only for what gets approved -- no paid time off. Hourly rates provide more cash, but salaried positions provide a certain degree of job stability and some added perks, and should the company not be able to place you at a client, you get a steady paycheck during your time on the beach.

Most placement companies require you to sign a noncompete agreement. Under this agreement, you commit not to work for the same client under a different contract firm within a certain period of time after separation. Simply, you cannot work for $30 an hour at a client, quit that firm and sign on with another firm for a $35 rate at the same client. It's not ethical, but you'd be surprised at how many have tried to get away with it.

CCs sometimes have a special skill or certification needed to round out a project team, but you'll usually find CCs placed as programmers or in help desk support positions. CCs with highly specialized skills can usually command higher hourly rates, so attaining additional certifications from widely accepted certification providers is highly recommended.

Another type of CC is the consultant. The consultant is usually a more senior, tenured IT professional. Most consultants are postbaccalaureate graduates and can be found in the larger consulting firms. Those firms were once referred to as the Big 8, then mergers and acquisitions took them down to the Big 6, and now there are probably three or four large firms specializing in IT consulting. These companies usually cull their constituents from the business schools of large universities. They offer graduates an attractive position with opportunities for growth.

There is an unspoken commitment above and beyond the 9-to-5 work life if you expect to advance from the ranks of the junior consultant. If you choose this path, you choose a lifestyle. The line between your private life and work lives tends to blur. You are expected to attend events and gatherings with senior staff members and the politics extends way beyond the office. Sixty-to-80-hour workweeks are not uncommon on critical projects. If you survive the first three to five years, you are rewarded with career ladder growth and salary enhancement opportunities like profit sharing, partnership and bonuses. The lifestyle is fast and travel is frequent as your career advances and you begin to develop a client base of your own, contributing to the long-term growth of your company.

A mutant of the CE and the CC is the independent contractor. The independent contractor is a self-starter with a proven record of integrity and quality in their work. They usually have some mix of CE and/or CC in their career path and are sometimes found under "Computers" in the local yellow pages. They work with small to medium-size businesses and wear many hats. They are familiar with the small-office tools and are skilled in database and application development using programs like Access and Excel. They are also usually familiar with small-office network setups and configurations and build their business mostly by word of mouth. Some independents shop their skills at job sites like www.guru.com. Others use small, independent intermediaries on their behalf.

Another strain of the consultancy is the boutique consulting firm. These companies are often the landing pads for those in the big consulting firms looking for an honorable exit. These businesses are often found redefining themselves to meet the demands or anticipated demands of the marketplace. As such, turnover is usually higher than normal. If you find the right mix, you can get lucky with these companies and learn a lot in a highly charged atmosphere. The risk is that if they target their growth in the wrong technology, they will go belly up before your first anniversary.

So, Where Should You Go?

The job market will fluctuate. As long as I have been in IT, the job market has been steady, with notable increases in demand during the year 2000 crunch. There are boom and bust cycles in the CC market as well. In the mid to late '90s, recruiters could not place people fast enough. Post-Y2k and -9/11 saw significant decreases in demand and increased corporate belt-tightening, as IS budgets came under close scrutiny.

The market for CEs and CCs in large corporations in segments like banking and insurance is mostly steady, with ebbs and flows. Large and medium-size manufacturing companies tend to hire and fire consistently with the economic trends. But as large companies lay off and downsize, the labor pool becomes richer with experienced IT professionals looking for work, eventually driving down the average salaries and benefits packages. So you may be competing with a 15- or 20-year IT veteran for your first position. Smaller businesses are always most sensitive to the economic cycles, so they tend to work exclusively with the independent CCs.

The path you choose largely depends on your personality type, technical skill, certifications and how you interact and communicate with clients, co-workers and the boss. The more you are driven by being part of a bigger picture and enjoy going to work in the same place with familiar surroundings, the more you will gravitate to the CE path.

The CC path will present you with more networking opportunities. You'll meet a lot of interesting people along the way. Find ones you trust, and stay in close contact with them. Networking is a key to unlocking serious potential in the business and IT worlds. If you are more driven by variety over stability, and if travel and a fast-paced lifestyle is your passion, take the CC path.

If I were entering college (I'm not), single (I'm not), were not a homeowner (I own two, or at least I think I do) and had little responsibility beyond laundry and basic hygiene (I wish), I would tend to learn more about life in the CC world and wait for the CE opportunities to present themselves along the way. In general, life in the CC world is more professionally diverse and definitely worth a go-round. But whatever path you choose, strive to be happy and embrace change, because it's the kernel of your IT career.

Jim Walsh is a 20-year IT professional and shares his life with his wife and four children, one grandchild, two dogs, two cats, a turtle and a fish. He offers monthly, candid advice and views on IT careers and work life. Jim can be reached at jdwinohio@hotmail.com.

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