Software Development

Answers to your burning career questions

Tim Heard answers your career questions about .NET training and finding a work-at-home contract.

We often get career questions from the Builder.com community. Tim Heard has some answers.

Question: What kind of job can .NET help me get?
I’m software engineer in Oregon, where the job market is extremely soft. I’ve been working at Intel for 18 years. I started out as a hardware technician doing schematic capture and other circuit board design tasks. Then I moved over to software support, where I conducted low-level support tasks of builds, installation scripts, and software testing. I went back to school and completed a Software Engineering Technology BS at Oregon Institute of Technology. I was promoted to engineer two years ago and moved up to ownership of more difficult software modules. I’ve been using MFC, C++, C, and a little Java. I also know HTML, Perl, and shell scripting.

Now I’m being redeployed and am looking for work. I’m interested in .NET and have been reading and following stories. I installed Visual Studio .NET and began tinkering with it. I’ve signed up for a two-week course in .NET (the C# and Framework classes) this summer.

So my question is, do you think there will be jobs for .NET software engineers, particularly at the junior software engineer standing? Do you have any training recommendations for me?

Answer: Knowing .NET can boost your career
Don’t sell your skills short. Only a couple of years ago, there were less experienced people running their own dot-com companies.

All kidding aside, I think your combination of experience and education places you in a good position. Many companies have all the senior-level developers they need. What they need and want are developers with a year or two of experience who can crank out good solid code; people who don’t feel that they have to be team leaders and who don’t need their egos constantly massaged. I think you’re probably just such a person.

I think it’s a good decision to study .NET this summer. While relatively few companies have made the move to .NET, there still aren’t a lot of developers who know how to use it, so there’ll be a short window of opportunity when listing it on your resume will give you an edge over those without that tool in their arsenal.

One company that’s already made the move to .NET is Advertek, Inc., a software solutions provider that assists medical researchers and other healthcare professionals with data collection, reporting, and biostatistics. I’ve been in touch with their president, Lee Hagendoorn, for quite some time, so I ran your question past him. Here’s what he said about the outlook for .NET:

“Microsoft .NET platform will capture an increasing share of new application initiatives with the flexibility, robustness, and scalability that it provides. Microsoft .NET will also simplify application creation and enable organizations to best exploit new technologies by supporting a standards-based development and deployment environment. In addition, businesses will find that .NET's XML Web services will remove barriers to data sharing and software integration. In conclusion, .NET will become an increasingly viable choice for the next generation of Web-services-based applications. Thus, the career outlook for .NET software professionals appears promising.”

For training, go to the Microsoft .NET site to identify the Microsoft-certified curriculum courses, and compare those courses to courses offered by other vendors. The Microsoft .NET site also provides references to training centers and options.

Now, regarding your specific skills, it seems to me that your most glaring deficit is your lack of SQL Server experience. This is a skill that often differentiates intermediate developers from less experienced developers. Once you’ve mastered that, you might want to try to tackle Active Server Pages. I think, though, by that time you’ll be gainfully employed again, and your employer might be dictating what you need to learn next.

I really do think that your tech support and software testing experience will serve you well in your next job. That, combined with your academic training, hopefully has taught you the difference between good code and bad code.

Question: How do I get a work-at-home contract?
I have a question about changing my career focus. I received my bachelor's degree in Computer Science in 1987. I’ve worked full-time since then, except for two six-month maternity leaves.

My career has progressed from programmer (mostly mainframe work) through analyst (some mainframe and some client server) to functional architect (system development and package implementation). Since 1989, I have worked for a consulting firm, so my business experience base is quite broad: manufacturing, telecommunications, electric utility, health insurance, and government. I’ve worked on some projects at client sites and done some remote development where I was the prime contact for the client.

The most complicated environment involved working as an architect at a client site. My client (Company A) was developing and supporting multiple versions of a wireless cellular system for their client (Company N). The product had been developed by Company A and sold to Company N. Company N licensed the product to several customers in Latin America (Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Haiti). I needed strong communication and organizational skills to deal with my contacts at Company N.

I’d like to find a contract that would allow me to work from a home office. I want to be there when the bus drops my kids off after school. I have extensive experience working for remote clients, so I feel I could work for a company that is far from me.

I’d be willing to go back to programming and analysis work. I have a strong mainframe background, including COBOL, JCL, IMS, CICS, IDMS, DB2, and even Assembler. I think these are marketable skills in a world where most people want to work in Java and XML.

Where do I start my search?

Answer: A permanent position may offer more flexibility
As someone who has just such a job, I can appreciate your desire to find one.

It sounds as if you already understand the discipline required to work from home, so I won’t go into that at length. However, for those to whom such a job sounds like a dream, I’ll mention that it has its down sides. Working from home requires much more discipline than working in an office: It’s not for everyone. I took this job after several years as a Human Resources manager, and the change was extremely radical. I used to go to lunch every day with one or more people, but now I grab a quick sandwich, watch a bit of news on TV, and then head back down to the basement to work. There are times when you’ll be starved for social interaction, so I strongly encourage you to figure out a way to deal with this issue.

My feeling is that you’ll be better served if you focus your search on obtaining a permanent position rather than a contract opportunity. There are contract opportunities that will allow you to work from home, but many employers are more inclined to use work-at-home as a means of retaining an employee. In other words, they use it as a perk. Contractors, on the other hand, will only be there for a limited time anyway. Also, since contractors don’t have a history with the company, they often benefit from being on site, where they have access to more people and resources that can help them accomplish their tasks. Rather than calling or e-mailing Joe and waiting for an answer, you can walk down to his cubicle and wait for him to get off the phone.

Here are some online resources you may want to take a look at:
  • WorkingMother Magazine lists the top 100 family-friendly companies in 2001.
  • FamilyFriendly.com offers a variety of resources to help you achieve work/life balance.
  • The Software Contractors’ Guild – Contractors pay to place their resumes on this site and advertise for contract positions. This is a resource just for people seeking contract work, and it allows you to specify if you are only willing to work remotely (so recruiters won’t waste your time).

Good luck in your search. I hope this has been helpful.
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