On The Job: Ten IT Job-hunting Truisms

Monday Sep 18th 2000 by ServerWatch Staff
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Last week, I talked about the top five IT job-hunting myths, and how buying into any of them can hurt your chances of beginning or advancing a career in this industry. But some of the things you hear out there about the job search process are legit. This week, I want to discuss ten truisms that you should keep in mind as you go after the fame and fortune (or at least, success and sustenance) that you so richly deserve.

Deb Shinder

Last week, I talked about the top five IT job-hunting myths, and how buying into any of them can hurt your chances of beginning or advancing a career in this industry. But some of the things you hear out there about the job search process are legit. This week, I want to discuss ten truisms that you should keep in mind as you go after the fame and fortune (or at least, success and sustenance) that you so richly deserve.

Truism #1: Location, location, location

If you've ever been involved in buying or selling real estate, you've no doubt heard that the most important factor in determining the value of property is "location, location, location." For better or worse, this is also one of the biggest - if not the biggest - factors governing your marketability as an IT professional, as well.

When you listen to people in one geographic area lament about how they have fifteen certifications and years of experience and can't get an interview, and then you hear someone in another area talk about how they walked out the door of the community college with nothing more than an MCP and started to work for $60K, you may think somebody is exaggerating. But it's more likely both are telling the truth. The job market in IT varies enormously from one city/state/country to another, as do average compensation packages.

Those who say "there are no entry level IT jobs out there" may be right or wrong, depending on the definition of "out there." In cities with a fast-growing IT industry, jobs are plentiful. In places where the industry is not growing as quickly, or where the market is saturated with IT people, it's much harder to get hired.

The sad truth is: you may have to relocate in order to get your dream job. And going "where the jobs are" doesn't necessarily meaning heading to Silicon Valley. Sure, there are a lot of IT positions there - but there are also a lot of candidates for them, many of whom have a great deal of experience in "the biz." You may be better off looking in new IT "hot spots" such as Austin, TX. A good rule of thumb is "go where the jobs are - and the glamour factor isn't." And be sure to check out Truism #9 before you start comparing salaries in the two locations.

Truism #2: Experience matters

Although in a hot job market, you may be able to get hired based on certifications alone (in fact, if the shortage of personnel is severe enough, any warm body that walks in the door will do), in many cases it's true that employers want more than a piece of paper to prove you can do the job.

"Gotta have experience to get a job, and gotta have a job to get experience." It's the oldest job-hunting catch-22 in the book, but it's not quite accurate. You can get experience without having a job - at least, without having a paid job.

In fact, there are several ways. The first, and potentially the best - although also the most expensive and unfortunately, the least impressive to employers - is to "do it yourself." Set up your own network at home, and implement as many enterprise functions as possible (divide the network into subnets, set up multiple domains, implement a remote access server, create a VPN connection, use NAT, configure DNS and WINS servers, try both static addressing and DHCP, and so forth). Break and fix things, do unattended installations of the operating system and deploy and upgrade software over the network. Make it your job to run your network. You'll learn things no book can ever teach you and no exam can ever test you on.

After you've developed some real skills, if you want to add a little more credibility to your experience claim, actually start a home business. Can't get a "real job?" Become a consultant. Be sure to accept only those assignments that fit your skill level, but this will bring in a little income, confer some tax benefits, and get you some of that all-important paid experience in the process. Heck, you might become so successful that you won't even need to think about going to work for someone else. Stranger things have happened.

Another way to gain some experience without investing in a large capital expenditure for equipment is to sell yourself as an "apprentice" to a networking professional. If you can't get hired without experience in your city's market, and you don't want to move, work out a deal with a company that will let you do a low-paid or no-paid internship for a set amount of time. They get the benefit of your help, and you get the experience to list on your risumi. If you do a good job, they may even hire you themselves at the end of your internship period.

Another option may be to do out-and-out volunteer work. Non-profit organizations, churches, schools, and the like are often in dire need of networking assistance but can't afford to pay for it. You can gain valuable experience by taking on a "pro bono" project for such an organization, and get social credits for your charitable contribution at the same time.

Where there's a will, there's a way to get experience. And that experience will help you to get a job.

Truism #3: It's easier to get a job when you have a job

Strange but true, and not unique to the IT world, most employers prefer to hire someone who is already working. Although it might seem that you should be able to make a case for how loyal an employee you'll be because you so desperately need the job, that tactic is likely to do you more harm than good in the job search.

If you do get hired, your desperation will probably lead employers to offer you less money and fewer benefits than they might have if they felt they were competing with other companies to get you.

It's far better to negotiate from a position of strength. "But I don't have a job," you say. "That's the whole reason I'm looking for one."

Well, see #2 again. Maybe you should consider starting a consulting business, and doing your job search from that "employed" position. Heck, if even you won't hire you, how do you expect anyone else to?

Truism #4: A good risumi can get you in the door

Job hunters tend to fall into two categories: those who put way too much stock in the role of the risumi in their job search, and those who think it's not an important factor at all. The truth - as it so often does - lies somewhere in the middle.

Remember the old saying: "you only get one chance to make a first impression." Your risumi is often the first impression that a potential employer has of you, and if that impression is unpleasant, it may be the only impression. A hastily thrown-together list of your educational credentials and past job history, full of misspellings and badly formatted, will say to the employer: "I am a sloppy person who doesn't care about doing the job right."

Regardless of how great your technical skills are, a bad risumi may prevent you from ever getting interviewed. You'll never have a chance to show off your brilliance. Take some time to create a risumi that really represents you at your best. It may even be worth it to have a professional write your risumi. At least have someone else proofread it before you send it out into the world as your front-line representative. Too many IT people believe it's the content, and not the presentation, that matters. What they don't realize is that if the presentation isn't done well, the reader will never get to the content.

On the other hand, some people see the "perfect risumi" as some sort of magic talisman that can single-handedly get them hired. Regardless of how pristine the prose, how beautifully organized the information, how flawlessly engraved on gold-edged parchment your risumi might be, remember that it's only a risumi. Its purpose is to get you an interview - and that's all. Once you get in the door, it's up to you and your scintillating personality to sell yourself, demonstrate your skills, and keep yourself from being ushered back out the same way you came in.

Deb Shinder

Truism #5: Who you know can help

Almost everyone hates office politics (except perhaps for the office politicians). Techies, more than most, loathe the notion that "it's not what you know, it's who you know" that counts in getting a job or promotion. In a perfect world, the boss's nephew would not be treated any differently from any other employee.

Most of us don't live or work in a perfect world, though, we're stuck with the real one. You may not have an uncle in the IT business, and I wouldn't advise that you go out and marry the HR director's daughter just to get a job. But who you know does matter, and who knows you matters even more.

Networking professionals will find their job searches much easier if they practice a little of the old-fashioned kind of "networking." The more people you get to know in the business, the more likely one of them will be able to put in a good word for you when you're looking for a job. All things being equal, most employers prefer to hire someone who comes with a recommendation from someone they know. A huge percentage of all open positions are filled through this informal word-of-mouth process rather than from candidates coming in "cold" off the street or in response to newspaper ads and the like.

One of the best things you can do for your career is to establish a good network of friends and acquaintances that are already working in the industry. How do you do that? Join professional organizations, participate in Internet mailing lists and newsgroups, "hang out" where the other IT pros go. Get your name out there - with a positive connotation. Be someone who's known as a team player, agreeable, easy to get along with, always eager to help. That reputation will come back to help you in your job hunt.

Note: a corollary to the above is that a negative reputation will come back to haunt you in the same situation. Think twice before you get into a flame war on a public MCSE mailing list. One of those lurkers who reads your invective and writes you off as a hot-head just might be the hiring authority at the next company where you apply for a job.

Truism #6: You have to pay your dues

We covered this in the IT job-hunting myths, but it's worth revisiting. In a tight market, you might be able to land your first job making $50-60K, but don't count on it. Most of us had to pay our dues in this business by starting out at a lower salary than we'd have liked and proving that we were worth the big bucks.

Don't balk at accepting a job that pays $35K when you have no experience in the field. Even if you were making $15K more in your old occupation, if it's not related to IT, you have to accept that you're starting over and you're a "newbie" again. The good news is that if you work hard and prove to be a team player, the dues-paying phase usually doesn't last long. You don't have to spend years scraping at bottom-of-the-barrel wages like an M.D. suffering through internship and residency to get to the "brass ring" of private practice. Most people who start out low, after six months to a year of solid experience, are able to negotiate a substantial increase with their current employer or move on to another organization at significantly higher pay.

Remember: patience is a virtue.

Truism #7: Hey, they expect me to work

Back when the MCSE training program recruiter was regaling you with tales of how getting that piece of paper would take you instantly from rags to riches, he/she forgot to mention something: network administration is a lot of - (watch out, scary word ahead) - work.

The reason IT professionals are generally well paid is that they generally work hard. Long hours are the norm; going home at the stroke of 5:00 is not. Expect to wear a pager and be called in on weekends when the network "burps." Don't be surprised to find yourself slaving away until after midnight when the server goes down, and then back on the job again at 8:00 the next morning to be sure all your users are able to log on.

The life of a networking pro is not a life of leisure. If you're not something of a workaholic, maybe a little obsessive-compulsive about getting everything just right, you might be happier in another line of work.

Truism #8: There's more than one fish in the sea

And there's more than one company in need of IT workers. Some job-hunters get their sights set on one particular organization and see it as the Mecca of their career plans. "I'm getting my certification so I can go to work for Microsoft/Cisco/EDS [insert "dream company" of your choice]" is a shortsighted goal that can narrowly limit your chances for success.

Be open to opportunities - even if they come from quarters where you would least expect to find them. It may not be as glamorous to say "I'm the network administrator for the ABC Widget Company," but what if the job includes a big corner office, four weeks of vacation, great working conditions, stock options, and a starting salary twice what you would make at the company of your dreams?

This truism is a good one to keep in mind later in your career, too. In this industry, being labeled a "job hunter" is not the kiss of death that it is - or used to be - in some fields. Don't feel you have to find the perfect job match before you can accept a position because once you take it, you can't ever make a change. Company loyalty is great - if the company inspires that loyalty by treating its employees well. If it doesn't, there is no shame in moving on to something better.

Accepting a job is not like getting married (or rather, like getting married is supposed to be). There is no "'til death do we part" clause.

Truism #9: Money is not the only great motivator

There is more to a job offer than the salary. Sure, money matters. More of it is usually better than less. But a job carries with it many other tangible and intangible benefits that you should weigh in deciding whether to accept an offer.

"Fringe bennies" can make up almost as much of a company's employee expenses as the salary itself. Insurance, paid time off, paid training, free parking or transportation, free meals, a company car, use of the corporate condo or corporate jet - all of these and other "creative" employee benefits add monetary value to the salary package (although you probably shouldn't expect to see those last ones until your career takes you into the rarified air of the executive suite).

Another very important factor when comparing salaries for two job offers in different geographic locations is cost of living. How much are those dollars actually worth in the area where you'll be living? Is a $50K job in San Francisco a "better" offer than a $45K job in Houston, everything else being equal? Not hardly, when you consider that the same house that costs $100K in Houston will cost you over half a million dollars in San Francisco, and you'll be paying state income tax, too, if you take that SF job. Now, if you love and adore San Francisco and wouldn't live anywhere else, you might be willing to accept what is really a lower salary in terms of buying power. But be sure to consider all these factors, and not just look at the numbers alone.

Note: There are several websites that offer cost of living calculators, to allow you to compare salary requirements to maintain the same living standard in two different cities. I used the one at www.homefair.com to determine that a $50K salary in Houston is equivalent to $86K in San Francisco.

Truism #10: Persistence pays off

We've all heard it all our lives: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." Nowhere is this more true than in pursuing your dream job. Don't let one (or a hundred) rejections get you down. If you have the skills, if you have the personality, if you are willing to work hard and pay your dues, if you're willing to consider relocation, if you understand that you may not start out at an astronomical salary, if you put a little time and effort into building a good risumi, if you will get out there and network with other IT professionals, if you keep trying, you will get a job.

Happy hunting!

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