Betting on Your Instincts

Steven Goodman was attracted to a couple of dot-com job offers he received before graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1998. But Goodman took a consulting job at PricewaterhouseCoopers instead. n His reasoning: It would be best to have a solid, stable information technology employer on his resume first - one that would prove his value in the long run - just in case the whole dot-com thing tanked. n James Henry, on the other hand, headed straight for dot-com FairMarket Inc. upon earning his computer information systems degree from Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., in May. n

His reasoning: As a software engineer at a dot-com, he could get closer to all aspects of the business - and build his long-term value - which would give him a leg up if he decided to join a larger, more stable corporation in the future. n Both graduates had plenty of options as they embarked on their IT careers. Goodman garnered several offers from Fortune 100 companies, and Henry considered offers from Boston-based John Hancock Life Insurance Co. and the consulting arm of Oracle Corp. n Each says the offers were comparable in terms of money and benefits. In the end, their decisions came down to where they saw themselves headed in the not-too-distant future. n "I like the technical side of things, the programming," says Goodman, 24, now in his second job, as an applications developer at HotJobs.com Ltd. in New York. "But with the death of the dot-com, I see software engineering becoming a less desirable position - I don't want to be a 30-year-old programmer when a company can get a 24-year-old for a lower price. Technology leadership skills are the way to go." n Henry, 22, also says he was focused on fusing his technology skills with a strong business perspective. n "I expect to enhance my knowledge of IT and how a company works," Henry says. "My degree gave me a good [business] background, but this position will give me insight into what this business needs and how to solve that from an IT perspective."

The fact that they took opposite approaches to reach the same goal underscores a key point in IT career planning. In a field that is constantly changing and growing, where no two weeks - or even two days - are quite the same, conventional career wisdom doesn't necessarily apply.

There are no right or wrong answers; you have to rely on your own best instincts.

"No one is going to take care of your career as well as you are," says Randall Stevens, a principal at P1 Results, a Columbus, Ohio-based contingency staffing and human resources consulting firm whose clients include The Limited Inc.

"No one is better focused on what's right for you than you," says Stevens.

In other words, you must be master of your own destiny. In today's IT environment, you have the luxury and the responsibility of taking charge of your own career. And there are many considerations in IT career planning that make it different from career planning in almost any other field.

For starters, both technology and IT organizational models change so frequently that new job titles are created just about every year. Java developer was an unheard-of position five years ago. Internet security analysts were few and far between until the past few years.

Consequently, Stevens suggests that, rather than trying to map out a five- or 10-year plan, graduates should look no further out than their next one or two jobs when making their initial employment decisions.

"If 10 years ago you'd had a 10-year plan, you wouldn't have been looking for Java positions," explains Stevens, who has specialized in IT recruiting and staffing since 1990. "So just plan out for one job beyond what you're going for now, and that will enable you to get the kind of training you need without shutting you off from any new opportunities in the future."

Owing to the IT labor supply-and-demand gap, salaries from employer to employer are competitive enough that financial considerations should be less of a determining factor in selecting a first job. Graduates in IT are going to make more money than graduates headed into most other occupations, so a few thousand dollars shouldn't influence the decision.

More important factors to consider are exposure to new technologies and what an employer can offer in terms of mentoring, training and continuing education.

"It's important that students look at any company they're considering to see that it has a training plan for them," says Kevin Murray, senior vice president and CIO at AIG Claim Services and Personal Lines, a division of American International Group Inc., an insurance and financial services company in New York.

"A mentor is key," Murray explains, "because IT managers are all very busy, and a mentoring program is a guarantee that entry-level employees will be nurtured. The early years are rough - it's not an easy transition. So whether a company has a strategy to ease that transition and increase the probability of success should be a [determining] factor."

The nature of the IT supply-and-demand gap for now and into the foreseeable future is such that lifestyle considerations can be brought to bear on IT career decisions.

Even in the tough-going entry-level period, recent grads can factor personal preferences into their job choices.

Henry says part of the appeal of Woburn, Mass.-based FairMarket was the culture: "I wanted an environment that wasn't stuck-up, that was a bit more relaxed so I could walk in and feel great and not have to wear a suit," he says.

Aric Aune, an electronic business consultant at The Pillsbury Co. in Minneapolis, learned first-hand that smart career planning takes such personal preferences into account. Aune, 31, spent seven years in the hotel industry before deciding that it really wasn't for him. He went back to school for an MBA at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management and made his first IT career decision knowing that he wanted to enjoy his job.

"I ruled out consulting because the compensation compared to the lifestyle wasn't even close," says Aune, who earned his MBA in May of last year. "The compensation was on par with everyone else, but the lifestyle wasn't that appealing - long hours, travel, the corporate culture."

Aune had five competitive job offers. He says he settled on Pillsbury, where he had interned during the summer between his two years of graduate school, largely because "I liked the people I worked with."

If that seems trivial at first glance, consider how much time people spend on the job. In that light, enjoying the company of fellow team members and the work environment will make all the difference to the transition from academics to the real world. And the smoother the transition, the sooner entry-level IT professionals can start focusing on preparing for the right next move.

Don't look back

Finally, don't get too hung up on whether your first job was a good or bad decision. How well you do in the long run will be determined less by the path you set out on in your first job than it will by the path you carve out for yourself from there.

"Your whole career doesn't ride on your first job," says Leo Timmons, senior manager of e-business application development at Pillsbury. "You can always change your mind, and as long as the economy is strong, there will always be job offers."

Even if the economy takes a dive or industry consolidation sweeps your employer away, "no company can function without computers these days, so there will always be new jobs," Timmons adds.

Despite the trend toward rapid-fire IT job-hopping, entry-level IT professionals should plan on staying at their first jobs for least 18 months to two years, IT recruiters and managers say.

It takes an average of six months to start to feel comfortable and confident at work, and at least twice that afterward to scope out what types of IT work are the most appealing. Only then can new IT professionals embark on a concerted effort to round out their skills and leadership abilities and to position themselves for the second job.

Savvy employers rotate their entry-level IT staffers through a variety of assignments to give them a feel for the range of opportunities available over the long haul. With each new experience, entry-level professionals gain deeper insight into the path that's right for them, employers say.

Uncertain about his own long-range plans, Dennis Holinka opted for a yearlong postgraduate internship at AIG after earning a computer information systems degree from Baruch College, a New York-based business school. He worked with several mentors - all project managers with five or more years' experience - on a number of business-to-business and business-to-consumer Web-based applications.

Thanks to the hands-on development work and the close contact with the project managers, Holinka finished his internship with the realization that he wanted to stay on a technical track: "I learned that I don't want to be a project manager," he says.

Holinka also decided he liked the corporate culture at AIG enough that he signed on for a permanent position. He says that was partly because he felt that AIG would support his long-range plans. Now entrenched in his second job, with a vision of his future, Holinka is taking classes toward a master's degree in computer science at Pace University.

The decision to stay with your first employer for a second job, as Holinka did, or to seek a new employer, like Goodman did, comes down to a value proposition, according to AIG's Murray.

"It's an assessment of how the company is rewarding you for your successes," Murray says. "How are they motivating you with current and future assignments? And how are they compensating you - not just in pay, but . . . in making you a part of their future growth? And if that's not all adding up, then it may be time to move to a new company."

It's certainly difficult to plan an IT career very far into the future, but it's never too early to start thinking about a general long-term goal.

Goodman says he has thought far enough out to know that he'd like to aim for a CIO spot one day.

Henry says he entertains thoughts of going into project management. Both say they plan to earn MBAs, but neither has set down a timetable for their aspirations.

"The standard sort of career mapping that people talk about - I don't know if I hold that in high regard," Aune says. "You almost have to do everything you can every day to understand the dynamics of business and the technology, and if you continually drive yourself to do that, you can propel yourself forward to an end goal."

Goff is a freelance writer in New York. Contact her at lgoff@ix.netcom.com.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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