IT Pros Face Career Crossroads

Veterans reinventing themselves at midcareer.

Flipping through an in-flight magazine as he flew 25,000 feet over the Midwest, Andrew Cohen came to a realization: His career was off-course. It was an article on career coaches that forced Cohen, after 11 years as a manager with Lotus Development Corp., to re-evaluate his entire life until he reached the conclusion that he just didnt want to be a manager anymore.

Once back on the ground, he hired his own coach and dug deep within himself to find out what he really wanted out of his working life. Today, five months later, Cohen has found a new course as a free-lance IT consultant—a role that has brought him back to the hands-on programming he loves.

Odds are that most IT professionals will come to such a career crossroads sooner or later. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, most Americans will make three major career changes before they retire. Not surprisingly, a whole industry has sprung up—comprising books, Web sites, support groups and coaches—to help ease the way for midcareer professionals looking to make a change.

But given the recent downturn in the IT sector, is now the best time to take a chance on a new career path? Cohen admits that his hasnt been an entirely easy transition. "After leaving the nice cocoon of Lotus, I found out the contracting market had just about rolled over and died," said Cohen, in Newton, Mass. "I had to reinvent myself again as a consultant rather than a contractor and take on the responsibility of marketing my services myself."

According to David Foote, managing partner at Foote Partners LLC, an IT careers research company in New Canaan, Conn., the downturn should not prevent people from seeking new opportunities. "There are still plenty of good jobs out there for seasoned IT people," Foote said.

Cohen began his quest by contacting several career-coaching organizations. The International Coaching Federation ( helped him narrow his search, and after screening half a dozen coaches by phone, Cohen settled on Sharon Teitelbaum, a career coach based in Watertown, Mass., who charges $300 to $400 per month for individual coaching. For two months, Cohen and Teitelbaum were in contact, in person and via phone, doing structured exercises aimed at uncovering Cohens underlying values and needs. "It helped me realize I was happier doing the more hands-on technical work Id done at the beginning of my career, rather than the managerial track Id chosen later," he said.

Teitelbaum herself was no stranger to midcareer malaise. Before becoming a career coach, Teitelbaum spent 10 years as a database systems analyst for Apt Associates, a consultancy based in Cambridge, Mass. Her transition to career counseling was prompted by a growing realization that, after a decade in the computer business, "I was all teched out," she said.

Teitelbaum advises her clients to take advantage of the new array of resources for midcareer professionals available on the Web, ranging from generic job boards like to targeted online chats and bulletin boards in every conceivable field.

Prospective job changers shouldnt ignore the resources offered by their current employer, either, experts say. Many employers are providing a variety of new services to help their midcareer staffers evaluate their positions and switch to a new role within the company walls.

One company making strides in this area is Mellon Financial Corp., based in Pittsburgh. According to Tim Vigrass, first vice president in Mellons software engineering department, last July his organization launched an 18-month career investment program by purchasing a jobs skills model from Interpersonal Technology Group, of New York. The model is helping the IT group break down the skills and proficiency levels required for each of about 150 jobs. By August, Vigrass said, the 1,800 people in Mellons U.S. IT division will be able to log on to a Web-based self-assessment program that, in connection with the job model, will help staffers determine exactly where they are in the organization.

More than 30 Mellon employees are already taking advantage of another career transition opportunity. One is Sherry Freedline, a former pensions administrator in Mellons mutual fund subsidiary who had always wanted to become a programmer. Three years ago, she noticed an item in Mellons weekly in-house career opportunities bulletin announcing a new COBOL training program that was open to anyone at Mellon who passed a basic logic aptitude test. She passed the test and the round of interviews and, following an eight-week training course, was launched into her "dream job" as an associate programmer analyst.

"Making this move changed my life," Freedline said. And downturned economy or no, thats the kind of story that should inspire all midcareer professionals thinking about a change.