Tales From Beyond the (IT) Grave

By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2003-12-03

Tales From Beyond the (IT) Grave

Reader reaction to a recent commentary, "Tech Job Cuts Slow Because We Hit the Bone," was that I hit some raw nerves, particularly when it came to my advice to avoid getting laid off. One reader said I had left out cutting your salary by 90 percent, changing your name to (fill in an ethnic name common in countries to which IT work is often outsourced) and asking native-English-speaking co-workers to explain things to you after the boss has walked away.

Are IT professionals bigots? No. Most are just bitter. In the years since the bubble burst, theyve been laid off, had to retrain their replacements, taken on contracts for which theyve had to rewrite outsourced code that wouldnt compile, and seen their salaries shrink in the wash.

In spite of the fact that the technology sector dismissed and dissed them, many are still a vital part of their communities and the countrys economy. Some have left long-held careers in technology to go into teaching, sales or contracting, for example.

Reading through the reader mail, a number of questions nagged me. How tough was the switch to another career? Are those new careers rewarding? Are these skilled workers still hoping to get back into technology? What would they do differently if they were again faced with the layoff scenario, and what advice do they have for IT workers who fear that their own jobs are vulnerable?

Those are the questions I asked, and in the following pages are the layoff and survival tales three IT professionals told me. May the lessons serve you well, whether youre considering a move out of IT or if youve already been cut.

Next page: IT pro goes from technology to teaching.

Teaching as an alternative

to IT">

Name: Thomas M. OToole
Previous job: Software development, Kulicke & Soffa
Laid off: February 2003
New position: Teaching computer graphics to high school students

EWEEK.com: Why teaching?

OToole: It took me about five or six months to find a job between jobs. I left software development to teach computer graphics in a high school because I had a teaching degree when I graduated college and went into computers at a time when the PC was in its infancy. The teaching job was the only job I was getting interviews for, so I accepted a position this September.

EWEEK.com: Are you finding teaching to be a rewarding career? As mentally stimulating as software development?

OToole: Teaching is not as mentally stimulating as software development. It requires an enormous amount of people skills and the willingness to put up with the status quo. You have to be the kind of person who likes to work in the same place for a long time (which I am not). Software for me was extremely satisfying. I really enjoyed going to work every day. It was a real challenge.

EWEEK.com: Whats happened to your salary since you left IT?

OToole: I have been re-evaluating my jump into teaching. I get about $41K from teaching. I was making $70k just 9 months ago. I was just figuring out what it costs me to keep the teaching job. I spend $300 a month in commuting costs (for gas and tolls) because I work in New Jersey and live in Pennsylvania. I pay for medical insurance, have union dues and have to pay into the pension fund. The deductions from my pay equal 43 percent of my gross pay, [meaning that] I make about $14 dollars an hour net take-home. If I deduct the travel expenses from my net, I make about $10/hour. At one time I made $65/hour as a contractor. It is very difficult to make up that lost income. I keep falling more and more behind.

EWEEK.com: Are you still trying to find a job in IT?

OToole: I am considering looking for another job closer to where I live and with a greater potential for more net take-home pay. Since I have experience with technology in general and I am very hands-on construction savvy, I was considering contacting a local construction company to try to get a job as a Construction Project Manager. I believe it pays about $50-55k a year with benefits.

I did update my resume on Monster.com recently, and I received two e-mails from different recruiters. One is military and the other is unknown. I am going to pursue any lead that leads to a better opportunity.

EWEEK.com: What advice do you have for others who want (or are forced) to leave IT?

OToole: Anyone who voluntarily or involuntarily leaves IT should consider the lifestyle they want to lead first. To me, my family is the most important part of my life, then comes my work. (This doesnt bode well with the IT corporate culture). For some, retraining may be the answer. But for someone my age, I am not sure if I would be hired no matter what the skills or training. I really feel bad for the person who is 28 to 32 years old who is displaced by outsourcing. They are supposed to be in their best income years, and they may have to start a new career or retrain.

Next page: Going the contractor route in these days of offshore outsourcing.

Going the contractor route

Name: David W. Schofield
Previous jobs: Software development: Everything from user interface design work to real-time systems development in the semiconductor manufacturing equipment industry and biotechnology
Laid off: About 2.5 years ago
New position: Hung out his shingle as an Independent Contractor

EWEEK.com: Why contracting?

Schofield: Im a 20-year veteran of software development. … I had been working in Silicon Valley, in the semiconductor manufacturing equipment industry. About four years ago, I left that and moved back to the East Coast to work for a biotech company. Then after about a year and a half, I was laid off for the first time in my career. … I walked into work one morning and my computer was missing and the guy I shared an office with said, You have to report to HR right away. I had just received a promotion, and I found I was in the first wave of layoffs. After the shock wore off, I thought, Im a smart guy, I have the contacts, Ive always worked and interfaced well with people. Id really prefer being in the position of being able to see what was coming on the horizon. Subsequently, given the state of the industry, [plus] I had a lot of contacts, so I hung out my shingle. Theres little or no security in the traditional two-way social contract [between employers and employees] anymore. Thats evaporated for the most part in companies today.

EWEEK.com: So how do you like it?

Schofield: Im definitely happy with what Im doing. Its very challenging, plus I get to work with very good people. Theres a level of risk I endure, and its a lot higher because [independent contractors are] closer to the ground. We see the economics and know whats at stake. I know what every phone call and photocopy costs me. In most companies, youre buffered in a warm and comfortable corporate womb that shields you from the reality of corporate economics and decision making, but then you risk getting blind-sided.

EWEEK.com: Thanks in part to offshore outsourcing, the ranks of independent consultants such as yourself is dwindling. How is that affecting you?

Schofield: What I found, especially as an independent, is that it takes more time to find opportunities. They also dont want to pay near as much [as they used to]. My competition used to be traditional job shops or the big consulting companies such as the Arthur Andersens—but as I approached companies I found that more and more they were starting to push things overseas.

One company I worked with early on had a huge database application, but they were in a bind because the original developers had moved on and left them with a overly complex distributed system that was difficult to maintain. They also had other related applications acquired through mergers, and they needed to integrate these distributed systems and come up with a uniform application suite.

[In the past, I had] worked with other imported talent, but they were usually employees of the companies they worked at. This is the first time Id experienced half or two-thirds of the development jobs being outsourced. When I started the contract, there were probably 20-30 [foreign workers] on-site. They were paid significantly less. They were making approximately $15/hour, and they were living four or five to an apartment. But the majority of development work was going on overseas. I had to integrate database code [from the Bangalore, India, groups] into my part of the system, and I became an informal technical liaison between the [Bangalore] groups and here.

There were a few very talented people I got to know who did top-quality work, but generally the quality of the software I saw was relatively below-average to poor. Wed take code, plug it in, it wouldnt work. Wed try to integrate it, it would fail to compile. Wed point out what was wrong and theyd fix it, but it would happen again. It was usually things that were obvious. Theyd send this stuff back and forth. I sometimes wound up having to spend one or more hours a day working with local outsourced people on–site and particularly ones over there, introducing them to principles of software engineering and teaching them best practices like test-first development and daily builds.

I found they were technically trained in languages or syntax or applications, but they had poor development and engineering skills. Meanwhile, this project had significantly stretched out, time-wise. Similarly, at a local company where I have contacts in management, theyve built it into their cost model, where they more or less have employees on-site whose job it is to do Q&A for outsourced code. Theyd get code from overseas that didnt work and theyd have to debug it and send it back.

It was amazing to me that with the economics of this, they calculated they were able to rework things two to three times, which is what they were depending on. Companies seem to be saving dollars up-front, but it seems to be stretching out project times. They may miss critical market windows. A lot of these outsourced projects may be under-budget, but theyre not on time, and you often dont know what youve wound up with when youre done.

Theyre amputating critical functions. Theyre outsourcing core technologies. Im also concerned about security, in that Companies may some day try to sell into an emerging market only to find theyve been beaten to the punch by a derivative of their own outsourced code.

What exactly is outsourcing doing to national security and to corporate intellectual property? Tell us your thoughts in the eWEEK forum.

Next page: Contracting can pay off, but it takes time.

It takes time for

contracting to pay off">

EWEEK.com: Obviously, theres some frustration when working with offshore development teams. Does the pay help to make up for that?

Schofield: The first year, I had nothing. I knew I should allow time [to start making money as an independent], but it took a lot longer than I estimated. … Ive finally gotten to the point where Im doing about the same [financially]. Its taken about three years. I project next year to be better, because its a sowing-and-reaping situation. Youve got to pay your dues. At first, it was when the bubble was bursting, and it was extremely difficult. Everyone was slashing. I came out probably at the worst time to come out. Now, with the contacts Ive built up, and the good will Ive [created], plus my marketing efforts, its all starting to pay off. This year Im break-even with my old corporate salary—which was high-average for a corporate developer. I expect to exceed that by 20 percent next year.

EWEEK.com: What would you do differently if you had to do it all over again?

Schofield: I would have made better use of the contacts I had. Ive learned to network much better, because I had to. Id recommend to anyone going independent or getting out of IT and into something else to look at the people around you--and be creative about how you look at them. Not with a money-grubbing perspective—i.e., a What can I get out of them perspective. You need to realize the significance and impact of the people around you. If youre in a head-down job, not making any contacts, not getting out there professionally or socially and interacting with people, if youre becoming an isolationist, you need to break loose of that. You need to rediscover the value of others. You need to break out of the comfort zone of your own local little circle, from going through the same routine you always go through.

EWEEK.com: So your advice to people who want to go independent is to network like mad. Any suggestions of where technology people should look to do that?

Schofield: I became more involved in the life of my family and began networking through activities like taking the kids for swimming or ice-skating lessons. I also became involved with my local Technology Council and IT User Groups. Another option is more traditional service work such as contributing your time and talents to help a charity or non-profit organization, or by just being open to starting a conversation with someone. Be more interactive.

[After my family moved back to the East Coast,] we discovered a greater sense of community. How were all interconnected. That my value is greater than what I give to my company. In my community and even in my country, I have a greater value. A greater value than the companys economic value to stockholders.

Do you have a sob story to top the ones I collected? Tell me about it in the eWEEK forum.

Next page: Going into sales sucks.


: the sucky alternative">

Name: Withheld by request
Previous job: Managing Consultant in a division responsible for Business Intelligence Solutions involving schema and integrated systems
Laid off: October 2001, in "anticipation of the downturn in business due to 9/11"
New position: Sales of software that supports Document Management and Workflow at the enterprise level

EWEEK.com: Would you recommend Sales as a career alternative for other IT professionals?

Anonymous: I might be willing to recommend selling to others who have the right aptitude, but you have to realize that the employers are clearly taking significant advantage of the stressed environment. They are not stupid, and they took the roaring 90s personally. Its now retribution time.

The result: If you sell, you will earn a pittance for a base, be very highly leveraged on commission, and there will be little--if any--training. Most, even people like me who were involved in customer-facing jobs, dont really understand how to close. Oh, and even if you do, the business-to-business market is bad. Not just slow--terrible. The only reason for any economic recovery right now is the business-to-consumer [market]. So I wonder how long that will last.

EWEEK.com: Youre clearly miserable. Whats your exit plan?

Anonymous: Personally, I am looking for literally anything that will get me out of the sales position. ... But part of the problem is the poor marketplace. If I had a choice (read that investment-grade money), I would enter into a solutions oriented personal business. I have two very nice SMB-targeted solutions that I could easily deliver, and there is a need, but the venture people are reluctant to fund small startups. Ive tried. That notwithstanding, I would look towards Pre-sales or Technology Management again. My priorities would be to maximize my personal life again, manage a more stable money situation, and to have fun at work again.

EWEEK.com: Is the job scene improving at all?

Anonymous: People are not getting called back yet. There are still a gazillion resumes for every job. Interviews would be good, but full-time employment plus 3 hours per day commute time doesnt give me time to cold-call or knock on doors. About the only thing I can do is submit resumes half the night and hope for karma to call (and an interested company).

EWEEK.com: What would you do differently if you had to do it all over again?

Anonymous: If I had the layoff thing to do all over again, I would not sign the do-not-sue-us paperwork quite as willingly and try to negotiate a better severance. After that, I would immediately start certifying my skills and perhaps enter an MBA Certification Program at one of the big-time universities here in the Dallas area. I would not let [a resume marketing firm] take advantage of me and take my money for some truly worthless "resume marketing." I would walk door-to-door shoving my resume into the hands of every person that would take one. Finally, I would really customize every resume/cover letter that went out the door (I had five or six, based on the job position, but did not customize further other than inputting the targets name).

Obviously, getting out of IT wasnt a surefire path to happiness for some of our readers. If youve managed to find job happiness and job security in this still-shaky economy, whether its inside or outside of IT, let me know how you did it at lisa_vaas@comcast.net, and also, contribute to the conversation by clicking on the eWEEK forum link below.

Database Center Editor Lisa Vaas has written about enterprise applications and IT careers since 1997.

Go to the eWEEK forum to read more post-layoff survival tales and/or tell your own.

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