CXO

Answers to the top 20 career questions

IT professionals are faced with a number of career questions: Which certification should I pursue? How about an MBA? And what about renegotiating my salary? Career guru Kevin Rosenberg has the answers to 20 common career questions.


Editor's note:TechRepublic first published this collection of career questions as a download. Due to positive reader response, we're making the full report available here. The document is still available as a download, as well.

One of the most popular features found on TechRepublic is IT Manager's Q & A career column, “Career Compass.” Each month, executive headhunter Kevin Rosenberg answers reader questions—and after analyzing the e-mail in Kevin’s Inbox, we determined that questions typically fall into these categories:
  • Making the most of certifications
  • Experienced pros dealing with changing technology and careers
  • Wrestling with salary issues
  • Job hunting and recruiting

Kevin has built his own career answering questions for IT professionals. As managing director of BridgeGate LLC, Kevin’s primary responsibility is for technical operations, training, and management of the firm's finance, MIS, and HR specialty practice areas. He has a decade of experience conducting searches in IT, having placed IT executives for Aetna International, Fujitsu, Aramark, and others. Kevin also maintains BridgeGate's long-term relationship with Korn/Ferry, the world's largest executive search firm.

Making the most of certifications
I’m a paper MCSE; how can I find a job without experience?
Q: I had a job as a welder for six years. Recently, I got my MCSE and started a new career in computers. Now I have my MCSE and MCP+I and no job, because I lack experience. I'm currently working at a wholesale computer company building and loading computers. I have been using headhunter.com to look for a job, but no luck so far. What should I do next?
—Karl, location withheld

Rosenberg: Karl, your dilemma is a common one. Many freshly minted MCSEs, A+ Certified Professionals, and MCP+Is are encountering a lukewarm reception in the job market. The letters I am receiving from Career Compass readers indicate that those with brand new certificates are being met with less-than-inviting responses.

With skyrocketing salaries and the national deficit of skilled IT professionals, why is it that you, like the thousands of other entrants into the market, are having trouble finding work? Based on the feedback I've received from my clients and peers, several issues have had a profound effect on the value and marketability of the dozens of certification programs available to today's would-be IT professional.

Newly certified professionals are entering the market at a dizzying pace. This influx of candidates into an already crowded space is creating a market pressured by simple supply and demand. Additionally, the majority of the new IT pros are coming to the table without any experience, breadth of knowledge, or track record.

This, according to Craig Mills, owner of Brea, CA-based CAM Associates, is the kiss of death. Mills said that for a small systems integrator or even the large IT shop, the risk of hiring a new MCSE, A+, or MCP who has no prior IT expertise is significant. From Mills' point of view, career converts with new certifications are equivalent to entry-level professionals, only worse. "They have limited real-world expertise or troubleshooting skills but come with salary expectations that are inconsistent with the rest of the entry-level market." Mills prefers the somewhat passé CNE because "at least with the CNE, you know someone had to have experience before obtaining the certification."

An additional challenge is the perception of quality. Without doubt, the value of professional certifications is beyond reproach. However, due to the overwhelming number of organizations that are capable of issuing certifications, IT managers and HR pros are concerned with not only which cert a candidate has, but also where he received it. Given that the market is sensitive to the profusion of newly certified IT pros, how do you go about establishing a career in the field of your choosing? In a word: flexibility.

I strongly encourage any entrant into the IT community to seek an opportunity that shows a great deal of potential growth, where you will be compensated according to your experience but afforded the opportunity to grow and develop professionally. This may mean taking a third-shift position on a help desk to get a foot in the door. Once inside, learn and leverage what you know. Get noticed and get promoted. It sounds old-fashioned, but there is no substitute for experience.

Do I have too many certs?
Q: I have this overwhelming feeling that nobody wants me. I became a Microsoft Office Specialist in 1996-97, learning all of Office 97; plus I learned desktop publishing. Later, I studied A+, but I was unable to take the certification because I was broke.

I am 46 and Hispanic, and the single mother of 11-year-old twins, and I found out I could not get a job. I went to the Computer Learning Center for 14 months and studied network systems engineering and administration. I will graduate in September. But still nobody wants me!

I plan to get my CCNA certification and later my MCSE. My head is full of this computer knowledge. I am a tax preparer and E-filer. I produce a weekly church bulletin, flyers, and PowerPoint presentations, in addition to doing paralegal work.

Now I feel that after I finish this product-oriented training, I should go for an associate's degree in computer science.

There are thousands of jobs out there, but I can't get one, not even to dust a computer as a janitor. Something must be very wrong with me: My age? My race? My language? My lack of outside work experience for a boss? My sex?

I study hard, but I feel Americans look down on me.
—RA

Rosenberg: RA, this is not meant to sound harsh but rather constructive: You need to focus. There is no direct answer to your questions because, frankly, I believe there are much more significant issues at play here. Your career should be a series of calculated steps that lead to an end result. What those moves are and where they lead is uniquely yours. You must own it; set a course and stick with it. Sure, you have to provide for your family and make ends meet, but when developing a career, you must know what you want and determine how to get it.

After reading and re-reading your letter, I can only assume that you are trying to do too much for too many. When trying to convey your aptitude, expertise, and versatility to a potential employer, your real skills—those most likely to get you hired—get lost in the disarray.

Here is what you need to do. First, throw away any version of your resume you currently have. Next, with a pen and paper, write down your professional short- and long-term goals. Be descriptive and edit them over and over until you have one succinct and clear thought for each three- to five-year period you choose to address.

Now, for each goal, write down the practical knowledge you have that will help you accomplish it, your professional experiences that directly apply to the goal, and finally, what you must learn in the future to excel.

From this set of documents, you can craft a new resume. Although I am not typically a fan of the abbreviated resume, in your case I suggest no more than two pages. In this document, you must be disciplined. Your objective should be well-defined. The employment history should be in reverse chronological order, with your most recent experience first. You should omit any extracurricular experience not relevant to your objective. Your technical expertise, education, and certifications should be clearly stated.

With this more focused sense of your career and a new resume to substantiate it, begin networking with other professionals, visiting job sites on the Web, and responding to newspaper ads. Be sure to include a unique cover letter for each resume you send. Some suggested reading includes:
  • 10 Minute Guide to Job Interviews by Dana Morgan
  • Career Bounce-Back!: The Professionals in Transition Guide to Recovery & Reemployment by J. Damian Birkel, Stacey J. Miller
  • Using the Internet and the World Wide Web in Your Job Search by Fred Edmund Jandt, Mary B. Nemnich

Should I get a college degree or a certification?
Q: I'm a 12th grade student trying to plan for my future. So far, everything I've learned about computers has been self-taught, including:
  • DOS, Windows 3.11/95/98/NT4, and Linux
  • Programming in C++, VB 6, JAVA, JavaScript, CGI, and HTML

I've been working with PC hardware for the last three years. Right now, most of what I'm learning is directed toward networking and databases.

I will soon be graduating and am interested in pursuing a career in network administration. I was going to take the MSCE tests in NT4 admin, TCP/IP, and a few other areas, but many people tell me that that won't help me find a job.

Two-year tech schools were another option I was considering, but again, many people say that would be a waste of time and money. I can't afford a four-year college, and my high school grades aren't very good. Are there other options I'm overlooking? Would the MSCE certification help me?
—Jake S

Rosenberg: I applaud you for taking the first step in career management: planning. Too many professionals let their careers happen rather than make them happen. The results can often be less than inspiring. As for your situation, it is a challenging one. You sound like a driven young man, with a great deal of technical expertise and a relatively clear sense of who and what you want to be.

However, the big question is this: In the absence of formal education, will what you've learned be enough? Probably not. Although you may skate through some stages of your career unscathed, the lack of a formal education may hinder you at some point.

My advice is to use your obvious technical proficiency and get into the industry. I agree that the MCSE, MCP, CNE, and other certification programs are sometimes ill-perceived because there has been a deluge of people entering the market with the certs but no expertise. In your situation, however, this may not be the case. You have invested many years of your pre-adult life in technology and have obviously continued to invest in yourself. Accordingly, to continue to do so makes perfect sense.

Go for the certs. But don't stop there! Get into the workforce; accept the reality that a high school diploma and a killer technical background will take you only so far. While you are working, go to night school. Go to your local community college, get your grades up, and then crank out a BS as fast as you can.

For experienced IT pros: Changing technology and changing careers
Should I learn more Microsoft or Linux/UNIX programming?
Q: I am a 12-year IT veteran with nine years of Visual Basic experience developing various types of applications and systems. My experience is strictly with Microsoft products or products that run on Microsoft operating systems.

With the emergence of Linux, should I be learning more about Linux/UNIX programming and systems, or am I safe for next few years sticking with Microsoft? I like to learn new things, but there's plenty to learn on the Microsoft side. Besides, if you learn something new and don't use it, you'll forget it really fast. I have an opportunity at my present employer to study either one or both. Thanks.
—PC

Rosenberg: Any career is a series of calculated steps, and you're constantly required to invest in yourself. In IT, the importance of managing your career—and moreover, keeping one toe in the water and pursuing the next new thing or technology—is imperative.

Your expertise with Microsoft products has probably proven quite beneficial, but to continue to run parallel with Microsoft exclusively is perhaps shortsighted. Asking yourself, "Do I need to learn other skills?" is a proactive question.

The answer is difficult because learning something considered esoteric today may prove to be lucrative tomorrow. However, to be four to 12 months behind the technology curve may throw you into a spin that forces you to merely keep up rather than allowing you to get ahead.

Of course, you are safe on your current path. But is safe really where you want to be? Being an IT professional requires that you be technically aware, malleable, and adaptable. This awareness and flexibility should also translate into how you view yourself. You need to be willing to invest time in learning tools and technologies that may not be the next VB or XML. You can't go wrong learning Linux, but any tool or technology you master, no matter how relevant, can be accretive to your value and abilities.

How do I transition into management?
Q: I have been a manager with the same organization for 10 years. As of June, I am taking six months off to attend a full-time business programming course with Interim Technology with the view of entering the IT industry. My interest is in Web development and e-commerce.
  • What are the job prospects like in this area?
  • Am I going about my career change the right way?
  • Can you give me any hints?

—KP

Rosenberg: Kudos for taking the difficult step of reinventing yourself and taking charge of your professional future. I think if this is truly what you want to do, you are on the right path.

Your interests in e-commerce and Web technologies are not unique, but yes, there is great demand. However, be forewarned: Without practical expertise, your newfound profession and salary expectations may not be warmly received.

There are supply/demand pressures in the "e" employment marketplace. Countless TV and radio advertisements are touting the "get rich quick with careers in technology" mantra that recruiters and hiring managers have begun to loathe. But the reality is simple. Without experience, you may find a lot of closed doors.

However, all is not lost. Good old-fashioned enthusiasm, energy, and willingness to do what it takes will often open doors for you. Similarly, because Interim is a large IT services and staffing provider, you may be able to leverage their market relationships and clients to land your first job.

Remember: Keep your salary expectations reasonable and most importantly, check your ego at the door. Dozens of other people want that job as much as you do. Companies hire attitude and aptitude, not just skills. Coming from an academic environment exclusively leaves you with only attitude and aptitude. Use them wisely.

Will my ERP skills doom my future in IT?
Q: Is my short-lived career in ERP over? I left my job as a systems analyst and took a pay cut to participate in the implementation of an ERP system for a new employer. Now that the implementation is over and my resume includes ERP, I am finding that open positions needing ERP skills are not as plentiful as they were 24 months ago. Is this a short-term phenomenon or a long-term problem?
—Jeff, Burbank, CA

Rosenberg: Jeff, don't worry. The decline in ERP is something that took many IT pros by surprise. But, from a staffing perspective, it's a short-term issue.

ERP was seen by many companies as an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. In one effort they got to mitigate Y2K and upgrade legacy systems, thus redefining critical business processes. The savvy company began ERP implementation three or more years ago to complete it well before the change of the clock on Jan. 1, 2000.

Those companies who felt immune to the sting of Y2K and avoided the cost of a lengthy ERP implementation found the clock working against them in two ways. Not only was 2000 looming, but it became too late to start an ERP project when they learned the severity of their Y2K issues. Software companies and implementers also were caught off guard. Rampant and oftentimes indiscriminant hiring in '97 and '98 were reasonable responses to the demand. However, the market is flush with talented implementers today, many without a channel for their skills.

The good news is that according to industry studies, of the companies most needing an ERP solution for reasons other than Y2K, only 30 percent have actually implemented an enterprise solution. This leaves a very large number of sizable organizations that, after patching legacy applications with Band-Aids and bubble gum until Jan. 1, will begin initiating aggressive investigation of ERP solutions. With this, the frenzy for ERP-trained IT pros should return.

So don't let the ERP slowdown rob you of your enthusiasm for this career niche. As someone who obviously manages his career, perhaps you should use this time to brush up on the new acronyms sure to take IT by storm: CRM, B2B, and EAI.

Will I survive an acquisition?
Q: My company was just acquired by a much larger company in a similar business. I am now one of two CIOs. The writing on the wall says I will not be the one to emerge as the new CIO for the merged company. They tell me there is a place for me, but I'm thinking I should leave. Are there any points I should consider?
—Grant, Phoenix, AZ

Rosenberg: In today's merger-mania climate, which is showing no sign of relief, this is an all-too-common situation. The knee-jerk reaction is to run to the Directory of Executive Recruiters and start mailing resumes at the first inkling that you are not the chosen one. But wait. Put the brakes on and assess the possible upside. You are potentially more valuable to the team now than before. You hold the keys to the corporate knowledge vault. This is something extremely important to the acquiring company. The knowledge you hold may provide you with long-term job security and the tools to negotiate a fair retention incentive.

Also, don't underestimate the value that working under the prevailing CIO may bring to your professional development. Is the new CIO someone who brings more significant knowledge to the table and could possibly emerge as a potential mentor? I have seen many situations where a CIO's career would have otherwise peaked had the acquisition not taken place. Presumably, you have met and interacted with your new potential boss. Evaluate him or her and determine if this is a person who you can work with, can learn from, and who can help you enhance your career development.

I don’t like management—how will it affect my future?
Q: I am concerned about my future. I strive to be technical, but my job has changed and now focuses on project planning and managerial concerns. I am not the managerial type.

I am the EDI analyst for our organization. I love doing EDI, but I am concerned about the future of this career, and I have not completed my four-year degree. I don't know if I should augment my skill set with XML and middleware knowledge or finish my degree. Where do I go next?
—DH

Rosenberg: Your challenges, although multidimensional, are not uncommon. Let's address your concerns piece by piece.

First, your job is evolving into something you dislike. This is a frequent issue, especially for the technical professional. Techies often withdraw from management responsibility. However, the transformation of your job from a technical position to a leadership role is testament to the faith your company has in your ability to lead.

Your employer may see a bright future for you in management, but if that's not something you seek, it is your responsibility to address this with your employer. My advice is to not simply address your concern—also suggest a remedy. Come to the table with a plan, not a problem. Perhaps you can craft a role that lets you take a technical path parallel to a management path. Oftentimes, we see companies creating job tracks exclusively for the technically minded that offer the same rewards, challenges, and incentives as those afforded to employees on the management track.

Your second concern involves obsolescence of technology, and you are trying to weigh the value in learning a new technology (XML) or obtaining a four-year degree. If you are a regular Career Compass reader, you know my posture on college degrees: Regardless of how long it takes, that degree can be one of the most lucrative investments you make—in yourself.

When addressing the potential obsolescence of EDI, you will have to look at the future direction of your organization. Sure, the Web is a burgeoning environment, where more and more business is being transacted. However, good, old-fashioned EDI is still alive and well. Moreover, to many companies, EDI is the precursor of B2B e-commerce. Your company most likely values you and your 16 years of knowledge about the company's business.

My assumption is that whatever technical direction the company takes—Web, XML, and so on—it will probably take you along with it. As for the XML training, buy a book, take a class, or play with it on your own time. Who knows, perhaps you can recommend this new standard to your employer.

Do I need an MBA?
Q: I am a board-certified doctor who has realized that computers are the inevitable wave of the future in healthcare. So I am looking into a medical informatics master's degree program. Will I also need an MBA in order to be on track to become CIO in a large organization or industry?
—JT, MD

Rosenberg: JT, I trust you have contemplated all the implications of giving up a career in medicine for one in technology, so I won't even embark on that path. Instead I will give you the bad news up front. The likelihood that you will enter into the technology workforce at a level commensurate with your expectations, based solely on having a degree, is marginal at best.

Despite your obvious academic accomplishments, the role of CIO is typically reserved for those with the battle scars and vision to lead an organization through a technical jungle. So, with or without the MBA, your chances of moving right to CIO are not good until you cut your teeth in a tech job.

However, the prospects of leveraging and applying your medical degree and practical knowledge to an IT position specifically in medicine is quite promising. The Web and recent developments in software for the medical field have created numerous new categories of positions for hybrid careers in technology. There I feel you may find the warmest reception to your experience and your education. Remember, the role of CIO—be it at a hospital or at a manufacturer—is not just about domain knowledge. It's about business, and a degree can only give you exposure, not experience.

What kind of MBA is worth pursuing?
Q: I am a computer consultant in my early 30s and I am looking for a way to catapult my career to new heights. One of the options I am considering is the pursuit of an MBA. Since my background is primarily technical, the MBA would round out my business skills. My dilemma is this: Should I pursue a traditional MBA part-time, which could take three to four years, or should I pursue an executive MBA, which could take less than two years to complete? My concern is that prospective employers may not value the executive MBA as much as the traditional MBA. What is your perception of how those degrees are perceived in the business world?
—MF, Nashville, TN

Rosenberg: First, I applaud you for taking ownership of your career and taking steps to make things happen. The issue you raise about the MBA versus the executive MBA is a good one. The jury may still be out. The indications I get, both from recent graduates and from clients for whom I work, is that the executive MBA provides a more impacted and focused curriculum that is better tailored to the working processional.

The executive MBA typically focuses on a domain of knowledge that surrounds one's chosen profession. As such, this can only be seen as of great benefit to an employer. Sure, you may get some flack for taking the executive MBA, but long-term I can only see good coming from that choice.

Do I need an employment contract?
Q: I have been the VP of Information Technology for a midsize manufacturer for nearly four years. My annual review is due soon. Based on recent consolidation in our industry and the fact that several companies have been expressing interest in acquiring our company, would it be appropriate to request an employment contract?
—J.B., Seattle

Rosenberg: Yes! Approach your boss with a degree of subtlety. It's important that your request is not perceived as purely a self-preservation tactic (although in some ways it is). Indicate that you are still very committed to the company and to your current role. Acknowledge that you're aware of a potential acquisition or merger. Outline, with conviction, the importance of retaining the IT organization in any successful merger and keeping a continuity of leadership. Suggest an IT retention program and employment contracts for yourself and your key staff members. An employment contract should include:
  • Severance for up to 12 months for senior executives, although three to six months is most common.
  • Continuation of benefits.
  • Accelerated vesting or retention of company stock or options.
  • Executive outplacement assistance.

As a part of your next career move, should the situation warrant, I would recommend that you request an employment contract with specific language governing a potential merger or acquisition.

Wrestling with salary questions
Should I accept a job offer as a way to force my company to give me a raise?
Q: I just got a job offer from another company. I was not actively looking, nor am I pursuing other positions. The offer is very generous, but I really don't want to leave my current employer. However, this would be a great way to draw out a better salary and some perks from my current employer. My father and I discussed this, and he thinks I am crazy to play the game. I think he's got an old-fashioned view of the market and doesn't understand the way things work, especially in IT. What are your thoughts?
—AF, Dayton, OH

Rosenberg: AF, listen to your father. If his word isn't enough, consider this: By drawing and accepting a counteroffer, you are detonating C-4 plastic on every path behind you, leaving nothing but rubble. The recruiter with whom you worked is likely not to take your calls in the future (and someday you may need his or her help). The prospective employer who thought he had you inked in the org-chart, well, kiss him goodbye as a future prospective employer. And by the way, any of the managers, directors, and VPs you interviewed with, if they go to another employer, they most certainly would veto your candidacy there, too. If that's not enough, let's look at the shrapnel in your path going forward. Your current employer is now viewing you through an entirely different lens. Your loyalty is in question.

You have extorted them into paying a ransom to retain your skills. Moreover, when a mission-critical, career-building project comes down the pipe, don't be surprised if it bypasses you and goes to one of your peers. With respect to your next raise, you just got it. And probably the ones from following years, too. In my trade, it's called counteroffer suicide. So, by all means, trust the wisdom evidenced by the gray hairs around your father's temples. He's earned them, and you should listen.

Does anyone pay based on experience?
Q: I have been running a software services outfit for the last three years as the CEO. Although the company has been growing every year, it has not grown fast enough. I have almost seven years' experience in the IT industry, starting in 1992 as a hardware engineer. I have been associated with providing solutions to clients since 1995. The problem is that I am associated only with one company, which is not well known. Could you give me advice as to how to get a position commensurate with my experience and qualifications?
—Vivek, India

Rosenberg: Vivek, because I have limited information about your background, I cannot make a detailed recommendation. However, I think you may be a victim of title bias. In many cases with an individual who is basically running a company, the hiring managers and HR professionals scanning your resume often read much more into your role as the de facto CEO. They seldom read between the lines to understand how your delivery expertise may be applied to a more technical or hands-on or client-oriented role.

Similarly, they also jump to the conclusion that because you are running a business, you may not want their delivery job. Try working on your resume. Don't make them read between the lines; build up your IT experience in your resume. Focus less on the stature of CEO responsibilities and more on the results of a delivery professional. You might find these changes will gain you a larger audience.

Should I refuse to discuss my salary history?
Q: I am the CIO for a $150 million high-tech manufacturing company. Due to a recently announced relocation of the company headquarters, I am conducting a search for a new position. But I am growing tired of constantly being asked by HR pros and headhunters about my current compensation package. Why must you all be so insistent about knowing every intimate detail about my compensation? I am happy to outline my salary expectations, but with respect to what I'm making now, it's my paycheck and it's my business.
—Bryan B., Los Angeles

Rosenberg: Sounds like you have a problem with trust. Given the recent announcement of your company's departure from the state, perhaps it's understandable. However, the fundamental basis for a successful outcome on your search is trust. I often say, "It's your search, so manage it like a multimillion dollar project." However, this does not mean that you should hide information. Remember, delegation is the key to successful project management. In a job search, you are delegating a portion of your efforts to many people, be it an outplacement counselor, a headhunter, or the hiring manager at a prospective employer organization. Accordingly, to withhold something so basic as the makeup of your current compensation package sends a very distinct signal to the other party that you do not trust them or you have something to hide. Neither is particularly helpful when it's you who needs a new job.

I do understand your concern for privacy. Let me give you a few points to remember. First, for the right person, the money always works out. The better search firms are typically retained by their clients (the company with the open position) and have a fiduciary-like loyalty to them. Rest assured, though, that we also have every intention of making sure both parties come to amenable terms, and under no circumstances would we want any of our candidates feeling less than well represented.

Second, you may feel underpaid in your current position, and this is your reason for withholding compensation information. Not to fear. Let me share with you the "magic phrase." Use it every time an HR or hiring manager asks about your compensation expectations. Repeat after me: "I am currently making (insert your base compensation here) per year plus (bonus, options, etc.). If I am selected for this position, I am confident that you will make me a fair offer."

By stating your current base, you are being truthful. By stating that your expectation is that the company makes a "fair offer," you are in the driver's seat. You get to determine what constitutes a "fair offer."

Finally, if you absolutely will not give details, for whatever reason, and the recruiter still chooses to work with you, then be as specific as possible. Outline the range of your current base, bonuses in the prior year, company car, stock options, executive benefits, etc. Maybe your recruiter, once he or she knows the ballpark range of your compensation, will be able to shed some light on what compensation range you can expect relative to your experience, education, and expertise.

How do I fight for a raise?
Q: I am a Web developer with a large corporation. The other Web developers and I feel we are grossly underpaid. We have spoken with our manager, and he claims we are being paid the going rate for our area. However, all the information we have seen and read says just the opposite.

My wife and son keep telling me I should look for a job with another company, but I don't want to change jobs if I am being paid fairly. The trouble is, I don't know if I am.

Should I try to show my manager that we are underpaid? If so, maybe we can change things here instead of changing jobs.
—Bob C, aka Web Wizard

Rosenberg: Salary news is getting blown way out of proportion. Yes, there is a shortage of IT professionals. Yes, new jobs outpace the entry of IT workers to the market. Yes, this classic supply/demand pressure is driving salaries way up. But ... do not forget that there is more to your job than salary—and there is more to compensation than your base. Your query is a classic one, and I have responded similarly to many others in the past.

I encourage you to look before you leap. Ask yourself the following questions:
  1. What will I give up if I leave my current employer for another willing to pay me more?
  2. What intangibles do I receive, and expect to continue receiving, that I may not find with a future employer?
  3. How much of who I am professionally do I owe to my current employer, and does it reflect a pattern of continual investment in people that I might give up if I leave?
  4. Is my current situation doomed, and does it warrant immediate action?

If your answers to these questions point undeniably to the need to polish up your resume, then do it. If not, I agree that perhaps you can approach your company and demonstrate that prevailing market conditions make it imperative for them to rethink their compensation strategy for key positions. However, I offer one caution: This is a fine line, and you should not hold your research over your employer's head. Extortion will get you nowhere fast. Approach your employer and express your satisfaction with the elements of the job you value, make it clear you want to stay, but stress (and support with documentation) that continued wage suppression would harm the team. If you are in a management role, this may be a less-sensitive topic. If you are not, be cautious.

Job hunting and recruiting woes
Should I join an Internet start-up?
Q: I am the IT manager of a small IT shop in Cambridge, MA, and I am intrigued by dot-com mania. Many of the IT professionals I associate with and many of my former staff members are striking gold by joining small Internet start-ups and getting company stock options even before the company goes public. At this point, I am ready to subscribe to the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" rule. So I am polishing my resume. But what factors should I consider before I make a transition to an Internet start-up?
—Skip, Cambridge, MA

Rosenberg: Skip, your desire to cash in on the Internet revolution is not an uncommon one. Today, at least three out of five IT professionals I interview in my office include joining a dot com in their wish list. Why not? After all, a never-before-contemplated chapter of history is being written today because of the Internet. But before you cash in your chips and give up your challenging, rewarding, and stable position for the allure of a start-up company's stock options, get comfortable with the low probability of success.

The recent explosion of Internet stocks and company start-ups that plan to change the world with the Web is reminiscent of the California Gold Rush. Many came, but few struck gold. In fact, most returned penniless. Still, a job at a start-up does not rob you of your market value or your skills, which are very transportable in a hot market. So, given that the market is already on your side, here are some things to consider before you go pre-IPO.

Since 1994, more than one million companies in the Internet space have gone out of business. The Internet is fiercely competitive, and original ideas are few. Only the killer app or killer site will survive. So, while some IT managers have a lot of stock options, these often wind up worthless. Options are nothing more than a promise whose collateral is hope. Do your homework on any new company you are considering and carefully consider the reality rather than the hype or the hope.

Then, consider the vesting schedule. Post-IPO performance of many dot-com companies is often lackluster. The shares you receive in "zippy-software.com" may seem great, but in the options game, patience is a virtue. Common vesting schedules can be as long as seven years. Also consider the possible loss of compensation. Start-up companies often ask for round-the-clock workdays with nerve-racking stress, and still your salary can be reduced by anywhere from 20 to 60 percent. You're often trading today's financial security for a bet on the company's future success.

Now for the good news about getting into the Internet space. It's best described by one of my recent placements who said, "Dot com-ing is like coming out of a coma." He was referring to the increased opportunities for learning, exposure, and professional development at an Internet start-up. The quick pace of change, skills development, and experience is unlike any the employment market has ever seen. Joining a start-up can be equivalent to a rebirth for your career and a reminder of why you got into technology in the first place. Also, once you join a tech start-up, you are knighted. You are part of the fraternity and other start-up opportunities may very well come your way. So, when looking to move to an Internet start-up, consider the risks carefully (hard work, long hours, financial risk, job uncertainty) and also weigh the up side (challenge, fun, and the possibility of financial reward).

Should I take a new job but keep looking for something better?
Q: I was laid off from a high-paying, rewarding position with a large consulting firm in July. I have been interviewing aggressively and have received a very competitive offer from a fast-growth but small solutions firm in e-commerce. Though I feel the position and the offer are good, I am not convinced that joining this firm is in my best interest long-term. Because this is my first offer of employment, I have put off accepting it in the hope of receiving other offers from other firms where I would rather work. My concern is that the company that made the offer is growing impatient. Should I take the offer on the table and continue to look for an ideal situation, or just turn down the offer and risk being unemployed?
—Alexandra, Chicago

Rosenberg: Alexandra, I think you and every other sophisticated professional knows the right answer, but I will revalidate it. Let's make it simple. Under no circumstances should you accept a job offer with the intent of continuing to shop around. IT is an incestuous industry where everyone is well networked and connected. Bad news travels much more quickly than good. In the e-commerce space where such rampant growth is part of the furniture, it is very easy for information about your actions to travel from company to company. Burning a company that may be hiring you for a crucial project by resigning when a better offer comes along is tantamount to career suicide.

Be true to your instincts. If in your heart you feel that the company with the offer on the table is not going to add value to your career or be a hospitable place to develop your career, then politely turn them down. Do it in writing and then continue your search. The IT employment market today is exuberant, especially in e-commerce. Set your sights on the right job and commit to finding it.

Should we hire a job applicant without experience in our industry?
Q: I am the VP of human resources at a restaurant chain. We have had an opening for a CIO for several months and have been conducting our own search. The problem I am encountering is that the president and other members of the executive team are requiring that the ideal candidate be from the restaurant or quick-service food industry. But I've run out of options. What can I do?
—Name and address withheld

Rosenberg: Your dilemma is not uncommon. Many leaders of niche industry companies believe the only key to a successful hire is prior industry experience. I see this in virtually all industry subgroups, including retail, technology, publishing, entertainment, and financial services. This bias is counterproductive, as well as a staggering statement about management's perception that today's knowledge worker is rigid.

As a consultant, I believe my responsibility is to point out the pitfalls to my client of this hiring pattern. As the leader of the HR function at your company, you can coach your executive team to accept that the path of least resistance is not necessarily hiring in its own image. Here are some points to consider.

Restricted hiring practices limit the field of viable candidates by shutting off prospective candidates from related industries. In the restaurant business, perhaps people with retail expertise could also be viable.

This "only from our industry" mantra also stifles the development of "best practices." Senior managers who come from within industry groups can easily fall into patterns that replicate the way tasks have always been performed. Bringing in expertise from unrelated industries reinvigorates the executive team and brings a fresh perspective to the organization. Some of the most innovative changes in a business process can come from working with a clean slate.

You risk that the right candidates may never throw their hats in the ring based on their perceptions of your company. If your company or its IT function is not perceived in your industry to be among the top 10 percent, the executive who wants to stay "industry-specific" may not view joining your company as a boon for his or her career.

My advice is, challenge your executive team to spread its wings, launch a new search, and hire the best-qualified candidate for the job, regardless of industry. You'll be setting a new course for your company.

What’s the best way to update my resume?
Q: I have been with my current employer for over nine years, and I am starting to feel that it is time to move along. Since I have been out of touch with career shopping for quite some time, I was wondering if you have any suggestions on where to begin and how to update my resume.
—Kurt, location withheld

Rosenberg: There are numerous online and print sources for the job seeker. My advice to someone who has not been in the market for some time is to first bring your periscope out of the water and follow these steps:
  • Survey the local market.
  • Learn who is hiring and what skills are in hot demand.
  • Examine how your expertise and abilities correlate.
  • Polish up on your interview skills.

Additionally, read Ask the Headhunter: Reinventing the Interview to Win the Job by Nick A. Corcodilos. This is a well-respected book that takes a straightforward approach to job interviews.

As for writing a resume, the favored format of most HR pros and search consultants is a reverse chronological resume, where your employers, titles, terms of employment, and duties and responsibilities are all clearly defined.

The advice I give to those writing a resume is to write it as if a five-year-old will be reading it. Use few acronyms and leave nothing to interpretation. Do not leave the writing of your resume to a third party, since no one will be able to explain you better than you. If you need some outside help, read The Damn Good Resume Guide: A Crash Course in Resume Writing (3rd Edition) by Yana Parker.

Next, interview some local recruiters and determine which ones make you feel comfortable. Make sure that the recruiters you work with are client-driven—in other words, they are engaged by companies to do a search for candidates, not the other way around.

Finally, get known. Talk to friends and colleagues about your goals for your next position. Often, your next job is already in your Rolodex. Discreetly contact former colleagues and professional associates who know your work. In this market, you may be surprised at how effective your personal network is.

What’s the best way to recruit experienced IT workers?
Q: My company is suffering from the tight IT labor market. We are technically progressive, are in a captivating industry, and are well regarded in the region. However, we are having difficulty getting candidates to accept our positions despite our many encouraging interviews. What force could be working against us, or is this problem common?
—Keith L., Atlanta

Rosenberg: Yes, Keith, this problem is common but, to a degree, avoidable. Many factors alone or in concert could be affecting your ability to pull the ideal candidates over the fence. Some issues to consider:
  • Are you using the right search firm?
  • Are your employees good interviewers?
  • Are you interviewing the right candidates from the right sources?
  • Are your expectations concurrent with what your company has to offer?

These and other issues could have a significant impact on your offer to acceptance ratio. Let's look at them individually.

First, a subject near and dear to my heart: Are you using the right search firm? Notice I did not use the plural. Using more search firms does not increase your chances of hiring; in fact it dilutes each contingency firm's effort on your behalf. It's better to have one dedicated and motivated firm on an exclusive or retained assignment than to have 10 contingency firms doing no more than keeping you in mind. Similarly, using the right search firm (versus an employment agency) will increase your chances of making a successful hire because they will be driven by your need as a client instead of viewing the candidate as the commodity or product for sale.

Some of the behaviors exhibited by the wrong type of firm include:
  • Representing the "A" candidates to multiple clients concurrently and creating competitive offer situations.
  • Steering candidates to clients paying higher fees.
  • Overselling your job just to get candidates to interview.

Next, Are your employees good interviewers? I often find great IT professionals who are lousy at interviewing. To avoid turning off the ideal candidate, make sure your staff knows how to conduct an interview and shares a common goal—attracting (not just hiring) talent. Many life decisions are made in a split second. People are often judged that way too. Accordingly, in an interview situation, the interviewer, as well as the interviewee, must make a great first impression. Interviewers should be timely, show enthusiasm, greet candidates with warmth, and make them feel welcome.

I often hear of cases in which the interviewer—a star staffer, the filter through which all candidates must pass—enters an interview with ATTITUDE! This all-star pontificates to the candidate about how he or she can technically run circles around everyone that he or she meets and opens the discussion by asking, "Why should we hire you?" Trying to impress the candidate, the interviewer has done nothing more than turn off a potential hire.

Another question: Are you interviewing the right candidates from the right sources? In today's Internet age, we have come to expect everything in real time. Because of these advancements, the staffing market has become fiercely competitive. Internet recruiting can yield a deluge of candidates, but are they the right ones? Our analysis shows that the majority of the Web-sourced resumes have some hindrance attached. Common obstacles are visa/sponsorship or relocation requirements, spotty career history, and the most perilous, the competitive offer situation.

Because of the Web's real-time orientation, the top 10 percent of candidates, those we're all looking for, can get immediate interviews and numerous job offers in a very short period of time. It's a veritable candy store for the "A" player. Though these candidates possess the skills you seek, before interviewing a candidate that the entire world has access to, ask yourself, "How lucky do I feel?" Equally qualified candidates can be derived from search firms, referrals, networking, and user groups. Identifying these candidates may occur in less than real time, but the odds of a successful hire (one that actually shows up for work without accepting a better offer at the eleventh hour) are significantly higher.

Finally, an introspective issue to consider: Are your expectations concurrent with what your company has to offer? Take a good look at your company, the industry, the technology you use, and the financial offerings you can make. Ask yourself, are we going to be able to attract the "A+" candidate? The answer may be yes, but oftentimes, established companies with single-digit growth have a hard time landing the most sought-after candidates. The wizards in the market may be seeking the hyper-growth of a Web startup, the equity opportunity of a company ready to go public, or even the technology or business plan poised to reinvent an industry. Stable companies with great market share, contemporary technology, and numerous potential mentors sometimes find it hard to compete. Review the candidates you have lost and the companies that hired them. I am willing to bet if it wasn't for a better offer, it was one of the instances I outlined above.

Should I ask my client for a job?
Q: Kevin, help! I'm a non-certified, do-it-all IT guru—from network admin on NT and Linux, to systems admin on SQL 7 and on an ERP system, to LAN/WAN remote administration of three sites, to training, and more. I train power users, I put out fires, I install programs, I troubleshoot the LAN/WAN, and I work more than 50 hours a week on straight salary. Here's my problem: I want to get past $30K for my current salary base from my consulting firm. But I've had no reviews during this current seven-month project to prove my performance on the job, or even during previous projects. I have no certs to impress my company with, and no time to self-pace the study needed for my MCSE, MCDBA, UNIX, or Cisco certs. Without these, I can't be a top consultant for my consulting firm. So I'm wondering if—given the multi-solution services I'm providing my current project assignment client company—should I ask them for a job? What's your advice for me?
—DG, Kansas City, MO

Rosenberg: DG, you have raised several issues here. It appears you are trying to balance a need to improve your compensation and a desire to be recognized for your contribution to your consulting firm. My answer is, have patience and document everything. Since your tenure with the consulting firm has been relatively short, in the eyes of your boss you may still be somewhat unproven, despite your apparently stellar performance on this seven-month project. So, never underestimate the importance of sweat equity. Keep pouring yourself into the success of your assignment. And when review time comes around, you will more than likely be rewarded.

However, I would recommend that you begin reconstructing and documenting the accomplishments you have had, as well as correlating benefits to the client and to the firm. This will help you lobby for the increase you believe you deserve as well as provide your employer with details about the impact of your performance. Also, do not approach your client company for a job. It's likely that you won't receive an offer because of a contract between your company and the client. Moreover, it could cost you your job since your employer might find out about it.
Remember, career decisions can be quite complex. This content is intended to be used at your own risk. The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for any problems that may be experienced.

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