After one degree, a handful of certifications, and eight years writing software, I’m seriously thinking about calling it quits because of plummeting salaries, an uncertain future, and burnout. I know I’m not alone in questioning my future in the IT industry.

Industry trends
I wrote code to pay for my Computer Science degree at Florida State University. Money wasn’t important then, just opportunity and experience. I started programming for $5.75 an hour. I knew I was being exploited, but I was having fun and gaining experience. I was one of only three developers working on a system that has since generated sufficient revenue to make my employer one of the 500 fastest-growing companies in the United States.

I worked my way up the wage scale. After college and my first certification, I was up to $50,000 per year. Then, an Internet startup offered me $100,000. I achieved Solomon, a niche certification, and those contracts brought in even more money.

Then the bubble burst.

Today, lucrative contracts are scarce, salary prospects are poor, and I’ve found myself at a career crossroads. Do I seek further specialization or an advanced degree, or do I stick with being a generalist programmer, picking up skills as they come along?

Specialize or fade away
Software developers looking to build a solid career in IT should seriously consider specializing in a vertical, such as finance, accounting, or human resources. A thorough understanding of the business side of a vertical, combined with technical expertise, gives you an edge.

A couple of years ago, I did a six-month contract assignment on a human resources software package. At the time, it was just good money and a chance to live in Spain and absorb the local culture (along with the Sangria). I never thought about gaining vertical experience, but that’s what I was doing.

I recently bid on some contract work. When I spoke with the project lead, one of the skill sets he was interested in was my domain experience with human resource systems, not my experience with .NET.

In short, it takes more to advance your career than picking up the latest trend. It takes vertical expertise. Find a way to leverage your experience and your interests when you consider specializing in a vertical.

Commit or quit
The current tech downturn has troublesome long-term implications for the IT industry. Now is the time to either make a commitment to your future in the industry or seriously rethink your career plans. If you’re only in IT for the money, you should re-evaluate your commitment. Take an inventory of your skills and interests. Scout out the areas you might like to specialize in. Think about how you can leverage your experience and your expertise to find your niche in an industry in which the only constant is change.

Burned out

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