Developer

Stay in the game, but know the score

Regardless of your skills, it can be a tough time to be an IT consultant right now. Which skills should you concentrate on learning? When will your prospects improve? Here's a prediction.


Tim Heard is a technical recruiter for JC Malone, a career placement service. Tim shares his career advice by answering questions from TechRepublic members.

Question
I have been an IT consultant for more than 10 years, functioning as a project lead, analyst, and developer, depending on the contract. I started with mainframes, went into a UNIX environment, and then moved into Object-Oriented and Business Modeling. I’ve acquired project management knowledge, as well.

My problem is that I was working with Java and was about to study for my certification, but I was downsized from my latest contract. The market has changed so much that I have found it very difficult to find a position. There are far fewer Java (or any other) positions; employers are mostly looking for experts in very specific technologies. I need some direction; I’m now not as technical as the job postings currently demand and am looking for a "hybrid" position.

My questions are:
  • Should I get out of IT?
  • Should I focus on permanent or contract positions?
  • Should I focus on higher-level skills (e.g., ERP) or getting my PMP certification?

—Ron

Answer
People of all skill types are looking for work right now, especially consultants. Nearly every day, I get spammed by other recruiters seeking positions for out-of-work consultants. Here's a sampling of some of the skill sets that I have been offered during the past few days:
  • SAP Basis, Business Information Warehouse, Dazel, Mercator
  • Sr. Oracle DBA
  • VISUAL STUDIO.NET, MS-ACCESS VBA, VB, SOAP, XML C++, C, VB, Visual C++, UNIX

I’m also receiving a significant number of Java developers. The fact is that the economy is still in a recession. I regularly make calls to both large and small companies and only rarely get new clients that are in a hiring mode.

I wanted to pursue your concerns about Java jobs a little further, so I contacted Alan Williamson, editor-in-chief of Java Developer’s Journal. I had just read his article about the supposed demise of Java as a programming language and was curious about what else he had to say about Java’s future. Here's what he wrote me:

“The Java community is one of the most passionate and open set of people I have seen in my life, and it is this strength that will ensure Java will be a formidable force against the alternatives that come up on the radar, such as Microsoft's C#. Some feel the writing is on the wall for Java, but we dismiss such criticism. Java has never been stronger, and never before have we seen so many applications and general forward movement in the Java space than we see today.”

I offer Williamson’s comments not as proof that Java won't go away but as proof that many believe that it won't go away. Many large, powerful companies have a vested interest in maintaining Java's viability, and I suspect that we'll see Java programmers continue to flourish once the market rebounds.

I received a similar opinion from Bernie Crisostomo, a vice president at Bank of America. He very generously took the time to provide a detailed response to your question. Here is a portion of what he had to say:

“New IT projects are practically nonexistent, as a lagging effect of the market in general. But within six months, the market in general, with its overworked skeleton IT crews not delivering on overextended expectations, will have to recognize and 'right-size' to more realistic, yet still aggressive goals.

“Java is well suited to Web applications using the Internet Protocol. Industry standards such as Java and XML will be an evolving presence in lock step with the Web. Like the Internet, Java is established beyond critical mass; just because IT projects are down doesn't mean Java is out. Project management and consulting on Java projects will be on the rebound, though prospects may not be as stellar as before.”

Is there hope?
The point for you and all of the consultants who are feeling the pinch is that things are bound to get better. Now, on to your specific questions:

Should I get out of IT?
Whether you should remain in IT depends on your other skills and interests. Ask yourself what else you could do that would allow you to live comfortably and be personally rewarding. As I said, I fully expect to see an increase in tech jobs in the next six months to a year, but I don't expect to see employment levels return to where they were before the dot-com bust, at least not any time soon.

That said, you’ll find it harder to find good positions, and the pay won't be what it was before. If you're tired of trying to stay caught up with the pace of technology, perhaps that is a sign that you should get out or consider moving into another role, such as business analyst, that doesn't require cutting-edge skills.

Should I focus on permanent or contract positions?
Permanent positions are more attractive when the economy is slow. When a company decides that it is time to cut costs, contractors are generally the first to go. When the economy is really warmed up, consulting can be an appealing option for some.

I think that if you're looking to get out of the skills race and find some security, a permanent position is the way to go. However, since you have worked for more than 10 years as a consultant, you may have a very difficult time convincing potential employers that you have changed your ways and are willing to settle down. They’ll wonder how they can trust you to stick around when another inviting opportunity presents itself.

Should I focus on higher-level skills (e.g., ERP) or getting my PMP certification?
Nothing will completely insulate you from the advance of technology and changes in the economy. Ask yourself which skills really fit your natural abilities and work preference. With your project lead experience, obtaining your PMP certification may be an option, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Like any other certification, it will only be a matter of time before it becomes commonplace—a la MCSE—and won’t provide you an edge over other consultants.

Perhaps the best advice I can give is to refer you back to my previous article “Tips for staying positive when facing unemployment.” I hope that you will find it helpful.

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