It should be no surprise to you that the economy is driving a lot of changes that may affect your career. Today, you are a developer, comfortable in your position and confident that you are not a candidate for layoff. Tomorrow, you may arrive to find that you have a different boss, job title, and responsibilities. Such a change can leave you confused and worried about your professional future.

However, these things are not as sudden as they seem. If you look for the warning signs and are continually preparing, you should be able to keep your career steady in the face of massive change.

Watch for the warning signs
There are generally indications that change is going to occur. But when you’re comfortable in your position, you may have your “danger” radar turned down. Here are some things that might signal change:

  • You have been involved in fewer than normal interesting projects.
  • An unusual number of projects have been cancelled (and the reasons given are lame).
  • A planned upgrade is mysteriously cancelled.
  • There is an unusual and sudden interest in what everyone in the department does on a day-to-day basis.
  • The company is hemorrhaging money.
  • There has been a recent acquisition or merger.

If you notice any or all of these, or if your gut just tells you something is up, the time to act is now. Your company will probably be trying to create, align, or leverage core competencies. They will be looking at the skills they have available in-house and the skills they will need going forward. The decisions that come from that assessment are likely to affect you. Therefore, the more you can prepare for that, the better off you will be.

What should you do?
In short, you should make sure you either have the skills your employer will be looking for or the skills that other companies you’re interested in are looking for. What are those skills? According to the recent Gartner study “Managing the Dynamic IT Skills Portfolio” (June 18, 2001), “By 2005, business management and technology management skills will make up nearly 70 percent of the in-house IT skill portfolio; technical and product skills will largely be acquired from the external market.”

What does that mean for you, code warrior? It means that staff development will focus on “areas of expertise that support business growth and opportunity.” Gartner includes in those areas “business analysis, business integration, data management, strategic planning, customer value management, and architectural planning.” It means that code development and highly specialized skills will be increasingly outsourced, especially as companies become more adept at managing outsourcing and vendor relationships.

It might also mean that in order to stay at your current company, you may need to choose a development path in line with the new opportunities the company is pursuing. That could include using international development shops, where labor costs are less intense, and it could include a shift to using your “other” skill set, such as your business knowledge, to help drive new initiatives.

How do you prepare yourself to make a career shift?

  • Conduct your own skills inventory. Analyze your professional and interpersonal skills and your business/enterprise knowledge. Ask a trusted and honest peer or manager tough questions about what they think of you and your abilities. Don’t shoot the messenger; rather, consider this a valuable opportunity to learn something you might not otherwise have an opportunity to learn.
  • Survey the market. Take a look at the online job boards or the local printed classifieds. Find a hot job that describes the role you’d like to play six months or a year from now. Interview the company offering the job—not with the intent of getting the job, but rather to learn what it would take to get it down the road. Plot the path to that skill set. This might include taking online courses (there are many free courses available), using self-study guides such as certification books, or asking to be cross-trained.
  • Find a mentor. Tap his or her knowledge. Be a mentor. You will be surprised how much you learn when you are helping others.
  • Share what you know. Even if your company is heading in a direction that requires you to learn a new skill set, you certainly hold a wealth of business knowledge that extends beyond any technical specialty that’s being dropped. It makes sense that this is part of the reason you are still at the company, especially if there have been layoffs. You may want to spit-shine your soft-skill abilities, too. More than ever, building relationships, empowering others, and negotiating are essential.
  • Update your technical skills. So the job market isn’t what it was a year or so ago. If you’re searching for a new job right now, it may actually take a couple of months of dedicated searching to find a good fit for your talents, aspirations, and salary expectations. For example, despite this increased lead time in finding a new company, a shortage of qualified Java developers exists. There is still plenty of opportunity out there.
  • Find a useful way to learn a new technical skill. You could start with a small workflow project that the CIO wants to implement. HR has been known to be proactive in simplifying the way work gets done and may have a small, important, but not mission- or time-critical function that could be automated. Take on that task and you will have increased visibility and gained important customer value management brownie points at the same time.

A special note if you’re a COBOL programmer new to object-oriented (OO) design
An honest AD manager will tell you this: If you’re inexperienced with OO design, you have a big learning curve. But it’s certainly not insurmountable, especially if you tackle it incrementally. Buy a good book on OO design. Seize every opportunity to apply what you learn. Start learning an OO language. Java is as good a place as any to start.

While it’s true that some companies remain hesitant to adopt the Java development platform based on a shortage of qualified Java developers, it is also true that to stay competitive, even companies slow to adopt new technology do so when the technology becomes an industry mainstay. So if the company you work for turns to Java as part of its strategic plan, you will be in a perfect position to step forward.

Embrace change
Finally, it’s not a bad idea to remain hopeful and appreciative when change comes your way. Adapting well to change is considered a positive personality trait, and that can only help you in the long run as you move along your career path.