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Stephan Onisick

Taking Back Control of your IT Career

06 November 2008

It can, and does, happen during the average IT career. Suddenly you have lost your job. It is a time when you have to think carefully about your strategy, what you want to aim for, and then take back control of your IT Career. Stephan Onisick writes frankly about his own successful odyssey to put his career back on track.

On January 31st of this year, my boss came into my office and sat down for a chat; a rare event in itself. He explained that he had good news and bad news. The bad news was that, due to a "corporate reorganization", my services were no longer needed and he would escort me to the door; the good news was that I'd been given a few months of severance pay. In all, the whole thing took less time than it did to receive my seven-year-service pin at the Christmas party.

What followed were some painful months of trying to get myself back on my feet. I would like to say that my initial steps back on to the job market were carefully designed and mapped out, but mainly I was led by instinct, and dogged by deep pockets of doubt and a less than resilient economy. However, I gradually gained momentum and, ultimately, the whole experience proved rewarding beyond anything I could have envisaged in early February.

As a result of my efforts, I found a new job in a development environment, at a slightly higher salary, and with the added benefits of working from home. This article aims to set out some of the things I learned during this process. I hope to offer something of substance to two possible audiences.

  • First, to those who have been disenfranchised by crazy job markets, down-sizing and mergers, or possibly a mishandled employer relationship, I hope I can offer a series of steps that will enhance your technological value and expand your active professional network. The more you perceive your own value, the more prospective employers perceive it.
  • For the second type of audience, those not fully immersed in a learning environment, I offer a wide-eyed look at what learning resources are available—literally for the taking.

The article is geared towards the Microsoft Professional, but similar resources exist for other vendors and other professions.  All you need is a computer with a fairly current Operating System, an internet connection, speakers, and time. The old adage about looking for full time job looking is a full time job rings true!

The Immediate Aftermath: Decide what you really want

When I drove home early on January 31st I was in a state of shock. I didn't mind losing the company so much — it was the paycheck that hurt! However, given the unrelenting workload of the last few months, having the next few months off with pay did not seem like such a terrible prospect. By the time I returned the signed severance agreement the next day, and gathered a few cherished books, I was already feeling calmer.

What I needed was a plan for dealing with the immediate aftermath of my reversal, and for getting back into the job market, into a job I really wanted. It felt like I knew a lot more about the things I didn't want than what I did want. The following is the closest I could get to organized thoughts.

I started with the "don't want" list:

  1. I didn't want to be bitter about the whole experience; I wanted to move on quickly and avoid a long standing feud with the company.
  2. I didn't want to be unemployed.
  3. I'd been programming for 30 years and didn't want to have to change career. I have to face it: I'm a geek and like geeky activities.
  4.  I didn't want to dole out money to an employment agency—though I can actively sympathize with those that go this path.

Now, on to the "do want" list:

  1. I wanted to learn some new technologies. I was basically a VB.Net VS2005 / ASP.Net 1.1 programmer with a good background in SQL Server 2000 and DTS. I wanted to switch to C# (seems more folks pay money for C#), upgrade to ASP.Net 2.0 and SQL Server 2005, learn a bit about some of the "web2.0" technologies like Ajax, and perhaps get some exposure to Integration Services and Framework 3.5.
  2. I wanted to be either an employee or a consultant for a company that would respect my contribution -- maybe even get my sense of humor (although I would settle for one out of two.)
  3. I wanted, if at all possible, to telecommute with occasional on-site visit.

So that, in essence, was my plan: a). Learn some new skills and technologies, which would help present me in the best possible light to prospective employers. b). Get back into the job market.

Easy? Not Easy, but definitely attainable. And, of course, to achieve these ends I needed cost efficient resources. My cash reserves were finite and the clock was ticking. In this regard, the internet, via the search engine, ended up being my great equalizer.

The remainder of the article sets out all of the steps that I have found useful in this process, dealing with education and retraining, seeking reemployment, and generally keeping active and improving my support network. Let's start with the summary:

Education / Retraining

  • Free tools (Express Version of C# 2008, VB 2008 or Visual Web Express 2008)
  • Microsoft Webcasts
  • Microsoft Virtual Labs
  • Free books, cheap books, online books, sample chapters
  • User Groups

Seeking Reemployment

  • Rewriting my resume to increase its impact
  • Posting on Job Boards (Monster, Dice)
  • Using Recruiters (when necessary)

Keeping active

  • Undertaking contracts  (even temporary contracts)
  • Writing articles like this
  • Getting involved in User Groups

In truth, this summary is written with the benefit if hindsight. I only wish my thoughts had been this organized and categorized right from the start! I did some of these things – such as resume rewriting – much later than I should have done, only after I realized that I had major problems with the format (Houston we don't have launch!).

Education / Retraining

It's worth remembering that major vendors like Microsoft, IBM and Sun Microsystems want you to know how to use their software. They sell more software to a knowledgeable user base and so they provide a lot of excellent free resources to enable you to learn about it. All the resources described are completely free, unless stated otherwise.

Tools

Microsoft provides a number of free tools that you can use to expand your skill-set. Take a look at the following Web Page for free downloads of language tools and databases:

http://www.microsoft.com/express/product/

As you will see, the following Visual Studio Express versions are totally free to download and use:

  • Microsoft Visual Basic 2008 Express Edition li>Microsoft Visual C# 2008 Express Edition
  • Microsoft Visual C++ 2008 Express Edition
  • Microsoft Visual Web Developer 2008 Express Edition

Need a database for free? Try:

  • SQL Server 2008 Express
  • SQL Server 2008 Compact Edition

But, I hear you ask, aren't these all stripped down versions with little capability? That may have been true in the past—but not anymore. SQL Server Express and Compact editions can accommodate databases up to 4GB in size and you can run some pretty large applications off of that. My unofficial estimate is that 70% of the projects that I've encountered in the last year could be completed with the Express Versions. It's quite possible to become an adept programmer with just the Express tools and materials freely obtained online.

For example, in a recent user group meeting of BUG.Net (Birmingham User Group) in Birmingham Alabama, Robert Cain, a Microsoft MVP, discussed how a major energy company had developed an application utilizing SQL Server's Compact Database for their emergency backup system to retrieve site drawings. This new system is saving the company over $70,000 and has cut the time lag for drawing updates from months down to one day. Robert went on to show a LINQ implementation on that same compact database in C# and VB.Net.

You really can do real programming on a free database! Check out the following link for a great blog on SQL Compact Databases:

Microsoft Webcasts and "How do I" videos

Microsoft provides free webcasts covering a range of topics. Many of them are in-depth, last between 45 and 75 minutes, and often provide sample code to download and try out. The only requirement to access these webcasts as often as you would like, or simply to download them, is have a Windows Live ID.

I found the "Soup to Nuts" series particularly useful in acquiring more in-depth knowledge of relevant technologies. Microsoft has hundreds of webcasts in just this one series.

The "Soup To Nuts" webcasts cover ASP.net 2.0, ADO.Net 2.0, C#, Windows Presentation Foundation, and VB.NET. While parts of this series are over two years old, there are still some good fundamentals for "dotNetters" in these archived webcasts. Most of the series provide downloadable PowerPoint slides and demo code in both C# and VB.NET. I found it very helpful to see the same code in VB.NET and C# – especially since I was trying to transition to C#.

I often found that I would latch on to some of the more gifted presenters like Fritz Onion, William Steele or Glenn Gordon and then search for their blogs, articles and other webcasts.

A shorter alternative to the webcasts are the hundreds of videos that Microsoft offers in its "How do I" series. If you can spare 10-15 minutes a day to learn something new then they are well worth checking out. For example, the ASP.NET series can be found here:

Or you can subscribe to the general "How do I" RSS feed here:

Microsoft Virtual Labs

Sometimes you want to check out the new features of a piece of software but either can't afford it, or know that it would never load on your machine due to memory restrictions, operating system incompatibilities, or conflicts with something already running.

For these situations, Microsoft offer a range of virtual labs, covering topics from Visual Studio, SQL Server, SharePoint, PowerShell, Servers and a lot more. A virtual lab is basically a working software environment hosted on a virtual machine that is available 24/7 to explore given technology offerings. "Hosted on a virtual machine" means that the machine is reloaded for the next user from a stored image, after you exit. Think of it like a scratch pad that only exists while you are using it. Nothing of your work remains on the machine when you exit. Even if you happen to bring down the hosted system, a fresh working image will be reloaded for the next user. The virtual environments are either set-up in advance or are set-up "in situ" when you request one of these labs using your Window Live ID.

Virtual Labs are timed and range in length from 30 minutes to 90 minutes, and all of them provide a manual that you can download for free that covers the lab in detail.

On a few occasions I found that the lab descriptions didn't accurately reflect the contents.To avoid wasting time and effort, I found it more effective to go through the initial lab set-up, bookmark the page in my browser, download and print the lab manual, and then exit the lab. If after reading the manual, I decide the lab is worth taking, I return to the bookmarked page and resume the lab (this circumvents the 6 screens of requesting a resource).

At times, you may want to take a virtual lab just to access the software environment and perhaps do some specific testing of your own. When I first start playing with SharePoint 2007 I did not have access to a Windows Server so I used the Sharepoint virtual lab to look around the environment.

Books and Sample Chapters (free, or cheap)

Occasionally you want to look at material off-line and peruse it at your leisure. I have found ample free material surfing the internet and querying for "sample chapters" or "free ebook". Pick any development technology of interest and look for sample chapters.

Of the websites that regularly offer good ebooks and sample chapters, my personal favorites are InformIT, CodeGuru and Simple-Talk, which often offers great ebooks via their newsletter.

As useful as sample chapters and ebooks are, sometimes you need to fill in the gaps with a traditional hard-copy book. Depending on what technology you're learning, you don't necessarily need the very latest editions; sometimes a book two to three years old will suffice. In these cases, it's worth checking out sites such as half.com. I purchased a Windows Presentation Foundation book for the 3.0 release from a notable author for only $3.00, from this site. No, it's not the latest 3.5 version—but it had a lot of good material that was new to me. How can someone sell a brand new book for 75 cents or even a couple of dollars plus postage? I don't understand but I'll spring for it every time.

Another possibility that I didn't explore personally, but which I've heard others describe as a useful investment, is subscribing to an online technical book retailer such as Safari. (Now if someone were to offer me a free subscription to Safari…).

Community Sites

While I'm in the neighborhood of sample chapters let me mention a few other community sites that provide excellent article as well as sample code projects. Two of my favorites are CodePlex and CodeProject, both of which produce some marvelous and innovative code (and not just for Microsoft technologies).

It's surprising how many useful resources you can find by patient application of the "Old McDonald" search method (here a click, there a click, everywhere a click-click). One I'll single out for honorable mention is Ideal Programmer. This site aggregates webcast series and they even have spreadsheets to keep track as you go through each one.

Focused User groups (usually free to visit; slight cost to join)

I had known about some of the user groups in my city, Birmingham, but I have to confess that, until I became unemployed, I wasn't motivated to become involved, mainly due to the time pressures of my job. However, after becoming unemployed, I decided to pay a visit to my local BSDA (Birmingham Software Developers Association) user group, figuring it would be a good way to expand my professional network and maybe even meet someone who would know about a job opening.

It proved an excellent move. I met a lot of local developers and I got a few job leads (though they didn't actually culminate in a job). However, what did happen was, in retrospect, more interesting: I got hooked by some of the topics that were presented. These group meetings introduced me to technologies that I wouldn't have touched by myself, such as Windows Presentation Foundation, SilverLight and Virtual Disk Technologies (Virtual Machines).

New technologies often appear intimidating at first, with their cryptic jargons and cult-like followers. Take the Virtual Disk Technologies as one example. Initially, I wasn't even sure what a "virtual machine" was and, having read a few web articles, I concluded that only Operating Systems /Networking gurus would get anything useful out of it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

 When I saw a presentation on Virtual Machines by my peers, I began to visualize going through the same steps and producing the same results. Suddenly, it's wasn't as hard or complicated as I feared—it moved to the "doable" category. The presenters also did a pretty good job of pointing out the "gotchas" and pitfalls for newbies to this technology, like me. I left the presentation less intimidated by the technology and more inclined to try it. Now, in my current job, I utilize virtual technology every day, running a Windows 2003 Virtual Server with a SharePoint 2007 installation.

In short, whether you're employed or seeking work, I recommend getting involved with your local user groups, both to expand your professional network and to learn new technologies. These groups are usually easy to find, with a little internet surfing. In Alabama, we have a technical events website called Altechevents.com, which lists events for User Groups. After locating an event of interest, click on the hosting group's link. Some of the group sites contain links to other computer groups. So, once you locate one, you can usually find others.

Seeking Reemployment

Updating your technology skills is one important step on your road back to employment. The next is presenting those skills in the most compelling way, and bringing it to the attention of as many prospective employers as possible.

Constructive Resume Tweaking

A resume is a resume, right? Well, not exactly. Sometimes, as technical people, we tend to forget what hiring managers really want in employees. Since acquiring our technical knowledge has taken time and effort, we tend to be overly impressed by own skill set.

Case in point: I began interviewing for my current job less than two weeks after I changed the format of my resume and reloaded it on Dice.com (more on Job boards shortly). Up to that point, I had been getting a lot of calls from recruiters, but few employers. As part of the joining process for another job board, Career Services International, I was offered a free resume evaluation by one of their career consultants. She analyzed my resume and got back with me the next day with the news that my resume was incorrectly targeted and focused.

To be honest, she was right on the money. My resume droned on and on about technical projects and technologies – and I had felt duty-bound to fill up at least five pages since I am a veteran of 30 years of programming! However, the "list them and they will come" philosophy was not really working out for me. Where I missed the boat was in failing to highlight the actual employer benefit of my diverse projects.

Based on the advice I received, I completely tore into my resume, focusing on my career highlights and the benefits to my employers, and shortening the document to two pages. I won't bore you with the old resume (lucky you!!) but to illustrate the point, here's a short extract from the new one:

Highlight of Work Experience:

  • Enabled Online School to grow in revenue to 12 million per year through Online Applications
    (Revenue Est. 1 million per year in 2004)
    • Student Population grew from 300 to over 2000 per quarter through Online Registration, Enrollment, Automated Leads generation, and On Demand Reporting.
  • Developed First Online Claim Adjudication System to be utilized by major retail chains to automate payment for prescriptions
    • System allowed Rite Aid, Eckerd, CVS and Albertsons to receive timely payment for prescriptions.
    • Decreased Cash Float from 30-45 days to less than 3

Although it's not much fun, you need to write your resume from the perspective of an employer. Make sure they understand your potential value to their organization. I am not advocating faking achievements, but most technical people underestimate their own accomplishments.

One added point, if you are answering an ad, a targeted letter may serve your purposes better than a resume.  You want to give the employer enough of a reason to call you—not so much that they can rule you out without interviewing you.

Job Boards (some free, some not)

As you can probably tell from the previous section, I believe in job boards. My latest position came from a resume I uploaded to Dice.com, and I also received a lot of interest and advice from posting to other boards.

Some boards are better than others, according to the HR Manager who hired me. She felt that Dice applicants, in general, more closely resembled their resumes. However, this is a hard statement to verify since many candidates, me included, post the same resume to several boards (any port in the storm).

One thing I did notice about job boards was that it pays to update your resume frequently because search engines are activated by a new or changed resume.  This means you will get the most contact with recruiters or employers when you enter a resume or update it.

If you are currently employed, and don't want your employer to find your resume, you can set the visibility of your resume to private or hidden. This will allow you to use their job search engines without risking exposure, but at the expense of slowing down your search.

The job boards that you use will, in part, depend on your locality and in what parts of the country you are willing to work. Monster and Dice were the two major job boards I used, alongside Career Services International and USA Jobs. For sourcing local jobs, I used AL.Com, Career Builders and Craigs List.

Limited exposure to a recruiter (unclassified)

Recruiters, like people, are a mixed bag and they are everywhere. Early in my job search I quickly realized that most of the time the recruiter is not the employer. In my estimation, 60-75% of the job ads in newspapers, especially for professionals, are generated by recruiters. Some hiring firms rely strictly on recruiters. Conversely, other firms do not want to deal with recruiters at all, since that adds a hefty fee to the negotiations.

Toward the end of my current employment search, I was hearing from 3-5 recruiters a week. In the end, I didn't even bother to record their names. I figured if they really had a fish on the line they would call back.

A recruiter is a lot like a real-estate buying and selling agent combined: they have their corporate clients they want to please and somewhere further down the food chain, they would like to help you—if possible. Sometimes when they set up an interview, they know you are not exactly on the client's hotlist—but you'll do for fodder: to get a candidate with some qualifications makes it appear that the recruiter is continually working on this account.

Recruiters are gatekeepers: sometimes they will call you up about a certain job with a certain company; then decide not to submit your application, even though you think you might have a reasonable shot at the job. What do you do? You really don't want to go around the recruiter.

In my case, there were jobs I would have liked to have applied for, but the recruiter didn't think my C# skills were strong enough. I knew I wouldn't be a senior C# developer but could manage in most environments and had a good database background, knowledge of .Net structures and had completed a few C# projects.

Please don't assume that just one recruiter can do all of your searching. Most recruiters don't even expect to be exclusive in these days of the internet and job boards. They realize that you are probably working with other recruiters and doing some searching on your own

My position was simple: I needed a job. My attitude was if a recruiter can help and the client pays their commission—fine; if not, too bad.

Keeping Active

Immersing yourself in new technologies, brushing up your resume, and getting yourself exposed to employers are all essential steps in your search for the right job. Equally, important however, is simply keeping active: this means getting out there and meeting other developers in your community and also putting your new found knowledge into practice when and where you can, even if it's only on personal or voluntary projects or temporary contracts.

The business world has changed greatly since the last time I was looking for employment many of the "old techniques" for getting yourself noticed (such as cold-calling etc) no longer seemed promising. I considered doing manual labor to keep busy, but I felt that would have taken away my focus and edge. I had some bad days, and I was fortunate that I am surrounded by wonderful wife, friends and a caring pastor.  My wife encouraged my efforts and reminded me of my past successes. My Shih-tzu didn't care whether I had a job and the routines of spoiling and fussing over her added delight to my day.

Gradually, however, things improved. My involvement with my local user group helped a lot and, as my learning progressed, my confidence improved. Based on what I learned, I wrote an IT article, and scoped out a few additional articles. Two months into my unemployment I accepted a temporary six-week consulting contract. It was short-lived, but it helped me "keep my hand in" and the money was good!

Again, there are many other possibilities here that I did not use, but which are well worth considering, such as:

  • Finding temporary work through online agencies such as Rent a Coder
  • Doing voluntary / charitable IT work
  • Subscribing to a testing center like Brain Bench
  • Going for additional Certifications

Summary

Sometimes new directions and ideas are forced by events. Maybe they mostly are, but our egos probably won't admit it. If this article has one message is that there is life after a bad job, (even a long-term bad job) and if it has one constant theme it's that the resources you need to move on are out there on the Internet and available for free. You just need to get out there and find them.

The resources are there to enhance your life whether you're in work or out. Too often I've heard people say "I can't learn because my company doesn't provide any education budget and won't send me to such and such course". I know the spiel, been there—played that dirge; it's a dead-end. You are responsible for you and the clock is ticking.

Stephan Onisick

Author profile:

Stephan Onisick is developer with Portal Dynamics who has worked on several commercial web sites including a charity project for the Ronald McDonald House in Birmingham. He has also taught College Database and Solutions Architecture courses and holds several Microsoft Certifications. Stephan lives in Birmingham with his lovely wife, Janet, and a 7-year-old Shiztu named Gin Gin. Stephan can be reached at Onisick@Charter.net

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Subject: Great Article
Posted by: Anonymous (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 at 3:41 AM
Message: Great article - very informative. Many thanks

Subject: Wonderful Article
Posted by: Anonymous (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 at 7:14 AM
Message: Very thorough. Thanks for sharing your experience. I'm sure many can benefit.

Subject: Helpful Article
Posted by: Anonymous (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 at 7:45 AM
Message: I think this article will be useful next time I find myself without a job, which hopefully won't be until I retire! I've bookmarked this article & will probably print it out too. I've been downsized 4 times and these tips will be great to have !

Subject: Good article
Posted by: Anonymous (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 at 8:28 AM
Message: It was nice to hear your thoughts on how you got back on your feet after losing your job. Sharing the knowledge you gained will definitely help me should I (dreadfully) need it!

Subject: Really good article
Posted by: Anonymous (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 at 10:49 AM
Message: You layed out a path that anyone can take if they find themselves in your position. My two cents is that even though there are pressures on the job, it pays to expand your skills by continually learning new things. I usually take time each week to do this, and it gives me confidence in my current job.


Subject: Typical Drivel
Posted by: Anonymous (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 at 3:52 PM
Message: I guess all us programmers need to kiss Microsoft's a**.

Subject: Practical and honest article
Posted by: Anonymous (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 at 4:57 PM
Message: I liked your last statement "You are responsible for you and the clock is ticking".
Thanks for waking me up!

Subject: Extremely helpful
Posted by: Anonymous (not signed in)
Posted on: Thursday, November 13, 2008 at 6:22 AM
Message: As a Wall Street programmer, I expect to find myself in the same boat after 15 years, and this is really a great article.

Subject: Invest in yourself
Posted by: Anonymous (not signed in)
Posted on: Thursday, November 13, 2008 at 2:41 PM
Message: I agree with the earlier poster that mentions about continually learning new things. I was a victim of downsizing few years back. took a while to get back on my feet. Now I invest every second of my spare time to LEARN. Forget about real estate, forget about stocks. Just invest in yourself. I came upon this quote somewhere
The day I stop learning is the day I die


Subject: Great Article & Beautiful Website
Posted by: Wade Harvey (not signed in)
Posted on: Friday, December 05, 2008 at 12:18 PM
Message: A lot of good information on free resources to help people transistion between jobs or careers. Thanks so much for the honorable mention of my website http://idealprogrammer.com In creating the IdealProgrammer site, I was amazed to learn that many of the free resources on the net are actually better than the ones that I have paid a lot of money to get.

Subject: Thanks
Posted by: lusitano (view profile)
Posted on: Tuesday, June 09, 2009 at 6:11 PM
Message: nothing else to add... great article with quite a lot of good information! thanks!

Subject: I wrote this over 4 years ago and it still rings true
Posted by: SAOnisick (view profile)
Posted on: Saturday, July 28, 2012 at 6:18 PM
Message: I have been gainfully employed for the last 4 years. I'm an experience SharePoint Developer. I never quit learning.

I had almost forgot this article until a Recruiter told me she liked it.

Websites may have changed but my perspective about keeping learning haven't.

Stephan Onisick


 

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